Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a warm, safe wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
Early one morning, Benson’s mother said, “The kangaroo apples up on the hill should be ripe about now. Let’s go and pick some.”
Benson was very pleased. He loved kangaroo apples, and he loved kangaroo apple jam even more. They got their hats and their water-bottles, and a big bag for the kangaroo apples, and they set off. They walked a long, long way through the bush and up a big, big hill until they finally came to the spot where the best kangaroo apples grew.
After all that walking they were both hungry so they picked kangaroo apples off the bushes and ate as many as they wanted. “Don’t eat the green ones!” Benson’s mother reminded him, “only the orange ones. If you eat the green ones, they could make you really unwell.”
They filled the bag right up to the top, and Benson’s mother lay down in the sun for a rest while Benson looked around. He went up to the top of the hill and stood on a big, flat rock right on the top. He could see for miles and miles. A deep, deep valley spread out in front of him. He looked and looked over miles and miles of land and hills and trees, as far as he could see.
His mother came up and stood beside him. “It’s so… big!” he said to her. But she wasn’t looking at the view, she was looking at the rock under their feet.
“Look, Benson,” she said, “there’s some kind of carving on the rock.”
When he looked, Benson could see a deep groove carved in the rock, in a long curvy line. It was full of sand and dirt, and covered with stones and bushes in some places. They started clearing the bushes and sweeping the sand away. The more they cleared away, the more of the line appeared, going all the way along the rock, then curving back along the other side of the rock.
“It’s a giant fish!” Benson said. “Look, here’s the tail, and here are the fins – but this one is crooked. Whoever carved it didn’t get it right.”
His mother was staring at the rock carving. “It’s not a fish – I think it’s a whale!”
“How did it get here?” he asked. “Who would carve a whale up here, at the top of a mountain?”
“I don’t know,” his mother said. “We should ask Pascoe.”
Pascoe was the story-teller. She remembered all the stories there were, and she listened to new stories and told them to everyone.
The next time Pascoe and her mob came, Benson couldn’t wait to tell her about the whale carving. “It’s carved right into the rock, and it’s really, really big, as long as twenty wombats!”
“Where did you find it?” Pascoe asked. She was very interested.
Benson’s mother told her exactly where it was, on a big rock overlooking a deep, wide, endless valley.
Pascoe nodded. “That valley was once a great river,” she told them.
“How could it be a river?” Benson asked. “It’s just a big valley full of trees and bush.”
“Once the valley was filled with a great river that flowed from the mountains all the way to the sea,” Pascoe said. “But the summers got hotter and there were long, hard droughts when no rain fell, and the river dried up little by little, until now it’s not much more than a quiet, brown creek, running along the very bottom of the valley. No-one remembers the river any more, except now and then when the creek floods.”
“But what about the whale?” Benson asked.
Pascoe’s voice started to take on her story-teller’s voice. “Once long ago, the great river filled the valley, wider than any animal could swim across and deeper than anyone could tell. All sorts of animals lived on its banks. One day they saw an amazing thing: a great whale had swum up the river from the ocean. They could see her enormous flukes, and the spout that shot into the air whenever she huffed through the hole in her head. Everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered to watch. Then they noticed that she had a baby whale with her, tucked under her huge flipper.
“The baby was splashing his flippers and his tail too, but then the watchers saw that something was wrong. The baby was caught in the weeds that grew in the bottom of the river. The reeds were wrapped tightly around him, and no matter how hard he struggled he couldn’t get free.
“One of the Old Ones, whose name was Dillon, said to the others, ‘We must help the baby whale. If he can’t swim to the surface and breathe, he’ll drown.’
“Everybody rushed to help the baby whale. They pulled and pulled at the ribbons of weed.
“Dillon said to the others, ‘It’s no use, the weeds are tangled too tightly around him. We must cut them.’ Dillon took a sharp knife and slashed through the weeds, but the knife slipped and cut the baby whale’s flipper.
“The mother whale lifted up her giant tail to crush them, but at that moment the last of the weeds came loose and the baby whale swam to the surface and took a breath. He was saved!
“The mother whale and her baby swam slowly back out to sea, but every year she came back and brought her baby to visit them. In time the baby grew bigger and bigger, but they always knew him by the shape of his flipper where the knife had cut him.
“Dillon said to the others, ‘We must make a drawing of the whale, so that everyone will remember.’ So they found a large flat rock on top of the hill looking down on the river, and they carved a picture of the whale with his torn flipper.
“In time the great river dried up and became smaller and shallower, so that the whales could no longer swim up the river. But the carving in the rock remained, for all to see.”
Benson listened to Pascoe’s story with his mouth open. When it was finished, he asked, “Is that a true story?”
Pascoe said, “I think so. It’s one of the oldest stories I know. It’s been passed down from story-teller to story-teller for a long, long time.”
Benson asked her curiously, “Why do story-tellers tell stories?”
“Because they love to, and because it’s what they do,” she said. “Besides, stories like this tell us who we are. Do you understand, Benson?”
Benson thought about it. He nodded, and said, “It means that my people once saved a whale.”
The very next day Benson and his mother went back to the place where the kangaroo apples grew, to stand next to the rock and look down on the valley where the great river once flowed and whales once swam.