Have you ever heard the wind through the sheoaks? In daylight the sound is familiar. Whispered secrets through sun-dappled branches; the ancient language of trees a comforting backbeat as you peg washing on the Hills Hoist.
When night stalks the bay, it brings the powerful breath of the south. The wind wrestles and riots all the way from the Antarctic giving voice to haunting moans that echo across the sand dunes. To hear the wind through the sheoaks on a wild June night is to feel a trickle of ice down your spine.
The night air slaps my cheeks as I pull my wool cap further down over my ears. The glow from the fire in the lounge room does not extend its warmth to the backyard. It elongates my shadow — a sinister, unnatural shape stretches across the lawn.
‘What is it, girl?’ I cinch my dressing gown tighter and follow the path Lucy’s taken toward the sand dunes. Her shrill bark competes with the wind and the bellow of the ocean beyond. I can just make out her small, white form near the fenceline where the grass meets the sand.
‘What is it?’ I repeat. Moments before, Lucy had been curled in front of the fire, soft snores matching the rise and fall of her chest. Then, in that unnerving way unique to cats and dogs, she’d sat bolt upright, eyes large, head cocked — yanked from slumber by an unseen thing. Her nails clattered on the floorboards as she ran to the sliding door. Her bark indicated it was more than her bladder that warranted such immediacy.
Just a possum, my mind now clamours to assure me. Brushtails everywhere this time of year.
Lucy’s bark changes to something I’ve never heard before. A fear-tinged growl that comes from the depths of her DNA. ‘Lucy?’ My voice is air escaping a balloon. She hurries back to me, a low-bellied scuttle with ears and tail down.
The sheoaks heave and holler. Streaky clouds ride the wind, their passage casting flickering shadows across the dunes with each pass of the moon.
A noise that dries the spit in my mouth cuts through the cacophony. The unmistakable, impossible, snarling roar of a large jungle cat. Between my legs, Lucy whines and quivers.
In the moonshine a hulking form emerges from the peaks of the dunes. A giant black feline pads down the slope toward me. I hold my breath. Snippets of advice gleaned from the Discovery Channel gallop through my mind. Do I run? Do I stand still? Do I…
The panther regards me with amber eyes as it passes, flank level with the Hills Hoist’s handle. The sheen of its midnight coat ripples as it slinks around the side of the house.
The Peninsula Panther. I saw it. So did Lucy.
The sheoaks saw it too. I hear them talk of it, especially when the south wind blows.