The Landslide

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

Aunt Moss was going to visit an old friend who lived a long way away in another valley. Benson’s mother said, “I’m worried about Aunt Moss going all that way by herself. Benson, why don’t you go with her, for company?”

“What’s company?” Benson asked. He imagined it might be a new kind of pudding, maybe with cranberries, or butterscotch sauce.

“It means someone to talk to, or just someone to be with,” his mother said.

“Is that all?” said Benson. He thought about visiting Aunt Moss’s friends. Usually there was a lot of talking, but there was often cake or cookies that went along with the talking. “Okay,” he said. Benson got his hat and his water-bottle, and he and Aunt Moss set out.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and they walked a long way, talking about things. They came to the top of a long ridge, where the land on the other side stretched down and down and down, very steeply. Aunt Moss said it was an old quarry.

“What’s a quarry?” Benson asked.

Aunt Moss said, “A long time ago, people came with big diggers and dug a great, great big hole. They wanted to find coal or something, I don’t remember what. When they found it, they dug it out and then they went away and left this big hole behind.”

The quarry stretched down and along and across nearly as far as Benson could see. There were no trees or bushes, just banks covered in rocky dirt. He peered down to see if he could see the bottom.

Aunt Moss was just saying, “I think we should be very careful, Benson,” when Benson felt something very strange under his feet. He felt as if he was falling but he wasn’t. The land under his feet was falling, and Benson was sliding with it.

Aunt Moss screamed, “Come back!” She reached out and grabbed Benson but they couldn’t stop sliding. The dirt slid away down the slope and they both went with it, tumbling over and over. Benson slid faster and faster, as if he was part of the falling hill-side, then he suddenly banged into something and stopped. Aunt Moss crashed into him and stopped too. The earth slid over them and past them, until it slowed down and stopped too.

There was a heavy blanket of earth on top of Benson. He couldn’t move his arms or his legs, and he couldn’t breathe. Aunt Moss dug and scraped as fast as she could. At last she made a space for Benson’s head to come out, and he could breathe again. She kept digging until his front feet were free, and then he could dig himself out.

He shook his head hard to get the dirt out of his ears, and spat it out of his mouth. “What happened?” he said.

“It must have been a landslide,” Aunt Moss said. “Some of the hill-side just slid away, down into the bottom of the quarry. When there are no trees or plants to hold the soil together, it gets loose and sometimes chunks of it just slide away.” She was very tired from all the digging.

Benson felt around. There was loose dirt all around them, but under his feet there was something solid.

“I think we must have run into an old tree under the dirt,” Aunt Moss said. “That’s what saved us.” They could see their hats, way down at the bottom, so far away they looked like tiny little specks.

Benson looked up. The top of the quarry was a long way up. “How are we going to climb out?” he asked.

Aunt Moss said, “I don’t think we can climb out. The earth is still so loose, we could easily start another landslide.”

“What are we going to do?” Benson said. He had finished being shocked and now he was scared. He didn’t dare to move, in case he started to slide down the hillside again. “Should we shout for help?”

They both shouted as loudly as they could, but their voices sounded very small.

Aunt Moss felt in her pockets. “I’ve got my whistle,” she said. She blew as loudly as she could, but it sounded like a little peep in the great big space of the quarry.

“What else have you got in your pocket?” Benson asked. He was hoping she would say muffins, or a carrot cake.

“Just my tape measure and a hanky in case I need to blow my nose,” Aunt Moss said.

“Why do you have a tape measure?” Benson asked.

“I put it in there this morning after I was measuring the aspidistra to see how much it had grown,” she said. “What do you have in your pocket?”

“A lot of dirt,” Benson said. “And a sultana sandwich from yesterday, and a stone shaped like a frog.”

They both thought about what they had in their pockets and what they wished they had in them.

“I’ve heard of people sending messages by flashing lights at each other,” Aunt Moss said. “My tape-measure is very shiny – we could try reflecting the sunlight with it.”

Benson took the shiny metal tape measure and pointed it at the sun and wriggled it a bit. It made some flashes, but then the sun went behind a cloud.

“I could wave my hanky,” Aunt Moss said. They took turns waving it for a while, but Benson didn’t think it was such a good idea. It was very small and white, and there was no-one in the quarry to see it.

It got hotter and hotter. “How are we ever going to get out of here?” Benson said.

“Don’t worry,” Aunt Moss said, “I’m sure someone will come and find us. We just have to be patient, and try very hard not to move.”

It was very hard trying not to move. Every time they moved even a little bit, more dirt slid down. Benson started to get very hungry. He got the old sultana sandwich out of his pocket and brushed the dirt off it, and they divided it in half very carefully. Aunt Moss gave Benson the biggest half and they ate it. Even with the dirt, it tasted wonderful.

After a long time, it started to get dark and cold. Benson was worried that they would never get out of the quarry, but he didn’t tell Aunt Moss in case it made her worried. After a long time, he went to sleep, even though he was really hungry, with Aunt Moss holding him tightly, in case he slid down the side of the quarry while he was asleep.

When Benson woke up, it was very early and very cold. He was nice and warm, with Aunt Moss’s arms around him, but she was hot and shivering at the same time. “Aunt Moss, are you okay?” he asked.

“I don’t feel very well,” Aunt Moss said, “but don’t worry. I’m sure someone will come soon. Just hold on a bit longer.” She closed her eyes as if she was falling asleep. Benson was worried. He gave her a little shake but she didn’t wake up.

“Aunt Moss!” he said loudly, and shook her hard. She didn’t move.

It was then that Benson saw the earth moving, not far away from them.

“Aunt Moss, wake up!” he shouted. “It’s happening again!” He shut his eyes very hard and clung onto her as tightly as he could.

Then he felt strong hands on his shoulders and he heard a voice say, “It’s all right, Benson, you’re safe now.”

Benson opened his eyes. It was Mr Fenn. He seemed to be inside the hill itself, reaching out of a perfectly beautiful wombat hole, right beside them. He lifted Benson up, and Benson felt his feet dangling in the air. Then he was pulled safely inside the wombat hole beside Mr Fenn.

“Mr Fenn!” Benson said. “How did you get here?”

“We’ve been digging all night to get close enough to you without bringing down more of the dirt,” Mr Fenn explained. “Everyone helped, your mother and Elmer and Teresa and Delia, even young Mick.”

“You have to help Aunt Moss,” Benson said. “I think something’s wrong with her. She won’t wake up.”

“Don’t you worry, young man, I’ll get her out,” Mr Fenn said. He reached his strong arms out of the tunnel and grabbed Aunt Moss. “Come on, Mossy, let’s get you out of here and home safe,” he said.

Aunt Moss stirred and opened her eyes. “Benson!” she said.

“He’s safe,” Mr Fenn told her. “You’ve done a good job. Now it’s your turn. Hold onto me.”

Aunt Moss held onto Mr Fenn and he pulled her up into the tunnel where Benson was waiting. They moved along the tunnel to the other end where everyone was watching and waiting for them to come out. When they saw Aunt Moss and Benson, they clapped and cheered. Benson’s mother kept hugging him and wouldn’t put him down, but he didn’t mind at all.

Aunt Lillibet had a big pot of hot soup ready, and hot chocolate, and Benson had two bowls full of soup and three cups of hot chocolate before he was ready to talk again. “How did you find us?” he asked.

Mr Fenn said, “There was an eagle high above the quarry and he noticed something flashing in the side of the hill. He told some cockatoos who were passing over, and they remembered they had heard a whistle and someone shouting. They told the magpies, and the magpies flew over and saw something white waving. So they let the kookaburras know, and the kookaburras flew past and saw the two of you, so they told the possums and the possums told everyone.”

“You’re safe now, and that’s all that matters,” Benson’s mother said, and gave him another hug.

Benson nodded, full of hot chocolate and soup. “Yes, we’re safe now, all because of Aunt Moss’s pockets.”

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