Happy Hunting Ground
[Picnics on special days have been a “thing” for years. Not sure when this experience happened, but it was a picnic all the same.]
Dad leaned on his shovel and with a wrinkled handkerchief patted sweat from his head displacing the few strands of hair masquerading as a “comb-over”. Then with grunts sounding as if he were puffing billy, he attacked the garden bed. With each load of soil, he groaned, puffed and wheezed, demonstrating how hard he was working. A closed cardboard box sat near the cauliflower patch, a counterbalance to the growing pile of dirt the other side of the hole Dad created.
‘Daddy, what are you doing?’ I asked strolling across the lawn to Dad.
Dad grunted some more and then flung a heap of soil into the mound behind him.
‘Daddy, why are you digging this deep hole?’
Dad stopped digging. ‘Huh?’
‘Daddy, what’s this hole for?’
‘Never you mind, Lee-Anne.’ Dad must think at six years old, I’m too young to know.
‘But Daddy, I just want to know.’
Dad tapped the box with his boot. ‘I’m sending puss to her happy hunting ground.’
‘Wilma?’ I asked. ‘But Daddy, why are you digging a hole, Daddy? Are you digging your way to Wilma’s happy hunting ground?’ I had visions of my cat chasing mice in China.
Dad glanced at the box and cleared his throat. ‘Oh, er, no, not really. Just a bit of gardening, dear. Now, run along and get ready for the picnic.’
Ah! A spring picnic at Brown Hill Creek. I loved picnics with Mummy, Daddy and Richard, my eleven year old brother. Brown Hill Creek in the Adelaide foothills had paths lined with eucalyptus trees, and a creek filled with yabbies and tadpoles for Richard and me to hunt. I imagined Brown Hill Creek as the perfect “happy hunting ground” for cats.
‘Is Brown Hill Creek Wilma’s happy hunting ground?’ I asked.
Mum, her mousy curls covered with a scarf, poked her head out the door and called from the porch, ‘Hurry up, David!’
‘Yes, dear,’ Dad said and with huffing and puffing, dug with increased speed.
I jumped up and down and flapped my arms. ‘Hooray! We’re going to Wilma’s happy hunting ground!’ Then I ran back to Mum standing in the back porch. ‘We’re going to Wilma’s happy hunting ground.’
‘Yes, well, I suppose,’ Mum said her blue eyes averting mine.
All the way to Brown Hill Creek, I filled the stale air in Bathsheba, our Holden car with my constant babble. As the only blonde in the family, it was my calling to be the family entertainment.
‘I bet Wilma loves it at Brown Hill Creek. There’s so many birds…Mummy, do all the cats go to our picnic park when they go to their happy hunting ground?’
‘Mmmm,’ Mum replied.
I took that response as a “yes”. ‘Mummy, why did Wilma go to her happy hunting ground? Why didn’t she want to stay with us?’
Mum sighed. ‘Wilma wanted to go. It was her time.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Are dogs there too?’
‘Wouldn’t be a happy hunting ground for cats, if dogs were there too,’ Dad said.
‘Maybe dogs go somewhere else.’ I tried to think where dogs would go. ‘Like where there’s more trees, I guess.’
Richard shook his square head topped with brown curls. ‘Why do you always talk so much, Lee-Anne?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Anyway,’ Richard said, ‘Wilma is—’
‘Shh!’ Mum glared at my brother and narrowed her eyes.
‘Gee, Brown Hill Creek must be full of cats,’ Richard muttered.
‘Oh, goody, when we get there, the first thing I’m going to do, I’m going to find them all,’ I said.
Richard rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Clouds shrouded the sky casting Brown Hill Creek reserve in a pall of grey. Dad manoeuvred Bathsheba into the gravel carpark. Richard and I then scrambled out. While Richard checked the water-levels of the creek, I gazed up at the lofty branches of the gum trees. Was Wilma up there? The leaves rustled in the breeze.
Mum found an even patch of ground near the creek and spread the rug. Dad lugged the wicker basket loaded with cheese and gherkin sandwiches and a thermos.
‘Richard, would you help carry this?’ Dad asked as he held a bag containing a spare set of my clothes. A picnic was never complete unless I fell into the creek at least once.
I raced along the path and began calling, ‘Wilma! Wilma!’
As the distance between my family and me widened, Dad yelled, ‘Don’t go wandering off—we don’t want you getting lost—again.’
‘I’ll go with her,’ Mum said.
‘Wilma! Wilma!’ I sang.
Birds twittered in those lofty branches. I looked up and called, ‘Wilma! Wilma! Here puss, puss, puss!’
A kookaburra cackled.
Mum pointed up at a bunch of blue-green leaves high in a tree. ‘Hey, look!’
‘No, look!’ Mum said, ‘A koala.’
‘What’s a koala doing here? I thought this was the cat’s happy hunting ground.’
Mum took a breath and began. ‘Wilma’s in a better place than this, she’s—’
‘Hiding?’ I peered in the scrub. I parted the stubbles of grass by the side of the path. I looked behind tree trunks and logs. ‘Wilma! Come Wilma!’
My brother strode up the path and stood next to Mum. ‘You have to tell her, Mum.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You won’t find Wilma here,’ Richard said.
‘Wilma’s gone dear,’ Mum said.
‘Dead, Lee-Anne,’ announced Richard.
‘No! Richard, you’re wrong. Dad said Wilma went to her “happy hunting ground”, I said straining my voice.
‘Richard’s right,’ Mum said. ‘Wilma’s happy hunting ground is in heaven, not Brown Hill Creek.’
We ate our cheese and gherkin sandwiches in silence. If I wasn’t talking our little family usually ate in silence. Mum sat me on her lap and wrapped her arms around me as I forced small bites of sandwich past the lump in my throat. I looked at the creek frothing and bubbling from good spring rains. The yabbies and tadpoles were safe from my jar and net that day. I was in no mood to hunt them. My spare set of clothes would stay a spare set for another picnic. I decided to break the silence.
‘Will I never see Wilma again?’ I asked.
‘I’m afraid not,’ Mum said. ‘But you have Barney, Wilma’s brother, to be your special cat to look after.’
‘Why does Lee-Anne get a special cat?’ Richard asked.
‘Well, you’ve got Timothy, Wilma’s other brother, he’s your special cat,’ Mum replied.
‘So Wilma’s in her happy hunting ground in heaven,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ Dad said. ‘Wilma’s in heaven.’
And I imagined Wilma stalking through a hole from our world and into the next; her happy hunting ground in heaven.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016; updated 2020; 2022
Feature Photo: Picnic at Brownhill Creek. Photo taken by David Trudinger 1964