A Storyteller's Process: Karen Lethlean

Organic came about as a result of my avid habit of walking trails in the Royal National Park near my home in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney.

I also belong to a running group infamous in the area – Billies Bushies, who run these trails, as well as getting out on a Mountain bike.

Being aware of the problems to do with invasive and feral species also assisted in writing Organic. I wanted to deal with the universal struggle of Man versus Nature from a different aspect.  Back in 1980s I also spent an extended period tramping, bike touring, back-packing and working as picker in New Zealand, which is were I imagine these events unfolded.

Somewhere in my reading I am sure I encountered a snipped that informed the story Organic, perhaps it was the actual detail that the feral cat scratched the human victim, or purred as it ate. I loved this image, and it stayed with me so much that I had to build more into the exchange.

Organic has been worked on, edited through several processes and a few sets of eyes, which helped the end product.  One of the most significant points given to me was to think about the quality of noises the protagonist encountered, and also to be very specific on elements of his trip into the mountains.

Having a word limit from Wild Words meant that I had to re-think the necessity of some sections, always a good process.

Not that I destroyed the longer version, you never know when there will be other opportunities.

I would advise all writers not to take editing input on their stories personally, try to avoid letting someone’s comments hurt, even though they might be meant to be helpful. Ultimately comments from others are only one person’s opinion. Someone thought the title was too ambiguous! In the case of Organic I was also told that in the closing scene the boat on the harbour should be more important than the wake in the water, but I disagree – ultimately I wanted nature to be more powerful than the things mankind has build and placed into the natural world.

Someone once said to me, “Listen to everyone, and then take from all this advice only what you need…” 

Karen was a runner up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2017. This is her winning story...


Five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. They smiled and waved, ‘You right mate?’ 

‘Perfectly fine,’ Garry answered.

‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’

Garry shook his head, refused to believe. ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’

Younger members of the group had gone on, carrying the esky between them slipping, sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.

Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Garry had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to sate his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer.  

It was less windy up here than on the beach. Yet the trail was littered with broken saplings and crushed scrubs where the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Even Garry slipped, came down hard on one knee. Onward, Garry told himself. Despite the throbbing and bleeding. First-aid kit; should have packed one.

Garry turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. His knee pinging and back straining with the weight of his bag. The track narrowed and dropped again into a small clearing. Perfect. Even a stream and blackened fire spot

His shelter was less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. An action accompanied caustic comments, while sand stung Garry’s face. All that effort for something that would be dismounted mere moments later.

There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire. Garry sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seep into his brain. Night was falling and so was the rain. Heavy drops plunking on leaves. Base tones pattered on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris

Garry stood, stiff legged. He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward.

Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. Deprive himself of company, see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Fifty ways to leave your lover…Recognizing those words Garry was filled with joy and regret.

Then he realised he was stoned.

A nearby bird called out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. Inside the tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird stopped mid cry. There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head – solid, animal, alive – and then gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working his cigarette lighter to a flame. The flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess.

A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush.

The flame died the same instant that Garry realised his finger was burnt.  He waited for his senses to adjust. The cat’s eyes reflected dully. The beast moved. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure that had been fur against the opening.

Packaging was being ripped open, like Christmas morning. The salami? The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. Then Garry could hear another sound. A low rumble, which took a moment to identify as purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird.

‘Puss, puss!’ he called like his mother summoning the family moggie. ‘Here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto.

Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Penny would have said.

‘Right.’ Garry said to the listening forest. ‘I’m coming in.’

The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Garry climbed into his sleeping bag and spent the night in a wet tent alone except for an apex predator that permeated a sharp, gut-wrenching stink. No neat scratching in a tray for this beast.

In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Garry’s sleepy gaze. With no warning, the animal extended a long hairy paw and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement which leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and refolding of enclosing bush.

At the bus stop Garry endured curious stares from locals. His foul smelling tent had refused to pack neatly. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.

After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Garry had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.

‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.

They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. The distant harbour had a sheen. Grey moody skies with the sea crossed by white wakes of boats and ferries.

Deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone.

Ahead Garry saw a future with his arm around Penny’s tattooed shoulder. He would not abandon her like his father had done.


Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2015: Runner Up

Black, Red and Yellow

by Karen Lethlean

When she was eight, her father had taken her ‘walkabout’ in the outback. He had taken her by herself, and she remembered the glory of being completely his, and him being completely hers. She did not remember why he had chosen her, and why he had left her sister behind.

They had taken a late night plane. Before too long they were landing in Alice Springs at dawn: she did remember him carrying her off the plane and camera, which he carried as close to his chest as he carried her: he put her down on the tarmac to take a photo of the rising sun He turned to her and said – what had he said?

For you to remember.

As they drove a wide, new highway away from the airport toward town buildings appeared to nestle in a folded hillside, rather than stuck out like in the city.

She had never been anywhere so hot, confusing when she’d left inner Sydney in chilled rain.   Neither could she recall being awake so early in the morning.

Of that trip, all she remembered were scattered moments of joy: meeting cousins who played and laughed in just the same way as her friends at school, yet who sounded truer, more real, and who looked beautiful, despite being brown.

At school class mates had said, ‘you will be the fast runner, you can’t be pretty or smart because you are an aboriginal.’ With an emphasis that made it sound like ab-bow-riginal. As if Jenny might have to bend like a bow for shooting arrows, or be tied in knots like a hair-bow.

In ‘Alice’, and the even smaller towns, settlements, whatever they were called, long legged, straight white teethed girls could easily have strutted down modelling cat-walks. You could play sport just for fun, chase a ball, and run the dry creek beds without straining to be better than everyone else.

True, there were frightening locals who gathered in shouting groups on some street corners. Who didn’t seem to pay attention to rubbish her teachers would have said, ‘needed to be picked up.’ Those people seemed to use words like sharp objects, or were flopping their thin limb around in unfriendly gestures. But even in Sydney there were people like that she knew to avoid.

Everyone seemed to be called ‘Uncle or Aunty’ even if they weren’t. Some were trouble, some could do tricks like making their thumbs disappear, or coins come out of your ears. And all their faces were varying shades of brown – from tan to blue-black-brown. No matter what skin, Jenny stood among them not apart from them.

If she was not playing with cousins Jenny was sitting in her father’s lap as he relaxed on a cool, wide verandas, and gazed out at a shimmering place that was just called “country”.

Safe within this family she would listen to a mix of language that to her ear resembled a jumble of sounds rather than words. Jenny had no idea her father could speak another language.

Sometimes she would doze off and would wake to find everything cloaked in gentle darkness. But no matter, the heavens were alive with Guy Fawkes Night sparklers, ‘they’re what the stars look like away from the city,’ her father had assured.

Out here her father seemed to have gained a straighter, stronger back, more powerful arms, and insights to all sorts of secrets Jenny would never have guessed. Not least of all was how he seemed to know the way across dusty tracks.

A few of the places where they had visited ‘the mob’ were dry and dusty, some houses burnt, graffiti covered, with scabby looking dogs who wandered about aimlessly. Except for fewer dogs, she’d seen worst in Sydney.

Jenny was surprized to find some fridges in the store behind strong wire frames and chained closed with padlocks. Even once, in the town, a policeman near the counter had scoured at her like her father was doing something wrong by getting out a cold drink.

It’s his job to make sure I aren’t buying booze to take into dry settlements, or give to under aged kids. Had been her father’s explanation which, to Jenny, explained nothing.

One night, they were coming home late, and she was talking to him, she remembered, but he was quiet, listened and laughed at whatever silliness she was saying. He looked out of the window into the dark night, and then cried out suddenly. Finally he said, ‘do you like it here?’

Her father then swerved and stopped, leaped out of the car, his hand outstretched to her, and she knew that hand would always be there as an offering. ‘Come darling,’ he said. She slid into the dark, the back of her knees sliding across the sweaty, dusty seat.

He stamped about, bear-footed. His bird like steps lifted dust from the ground. Jenny had never seen her father dance.

See if you can catch the land, keep it inside, and take it up into your heart through your feet, my baby.

While Jenny thought she’d never heard of anything quite so silly. How could you make something go to your heart sucked up from the souls of your feet? Here, she loved him, for those words.

If she’d been able to put it into an envelope and post it to her adult self, anytime in the future when she opened it red dust, dark skies and burning fires would have fallen out.