I live in the rural town of Port Hedland, Western Australia, and this is what happened on my walk. It was two Saturdays ago, on the 12th of August. I was walking alone at about 5:30 in the afternoon. I would normally have been walking my dog Charlie at this time, but she'd had an eye infection that kept her from sleeping and didn't seem up to the exercise.
Port Hedland is a coastal town near the northern end of Australia, and is prone to heavy rain from cyclones. The annual torrents require an extensive system of ditches running through the town to drain water off the roads. There also tends to be a lot of empty land between blocks of houses, massively overgrown with weeds that are only occasionally burned or trimmed away by the council.
I was walking along a narrow concrete bridge when I heard heavy breathing from the ditch below me. First I thought it was a drunk. Then I remembered the time I was jogging through a park (with my dog this time) and realized that I was running straight towards a large feral-looking mongrel dog, who was poking out of the yellow scrub and baring more and more teeth as I approached. We forget how close we are to nature.
I hurried along the bridge and looked under it after retreating to a respectful distance. There was nothing there. More relaxed and curious now, I walked back onto the bridge to ponder the origin of the sound. It promptly resumed. This time I boldly leaned over the railing and looked right under the bridge. Again I saw nothing more suspicious than empty faded beer cans. I straightened up, and stinking hot breath blew in my ear.
It was fear that I felt. Pure fear. Using some fancier word could only cheapen the experience. I fell back, facing the source of the breath. There was nothing I could see, but the heavy panting continued, and I was well familiar with that rotten-flesh smell unique to the breath of a dog on a bloody diet.
Before I'd even realized I should be getting up there was sudden invisible pressure on my chest. I expected paws, but did not quite feel them. Even now I can't quite discern the shape of the force that held me, whether I was restrained by paws, claws, hands or a flat slate.
Vicious howling erupted in front of me. Thoughts of the dog filled my mind, until I couldn't even see where I really was. That killer mongrel peeking his nose out of the bush, coolly deciding how close he would allow me to come before he lunged. Unable to think straight, I imagined that this was what was supposed to have happened, that I had fluked my way out of some cosmic debt and now the collector was knocking. Then it was gone. I didn't move for some time.
I wanted to go back there. It took me four days to get the nerve to actually do it, but I knew I wanted to go back. I thought about it for a while and decided everything needed to be the same. I arrived at the bridge at 5:30 the next Wednesday, walked to the centre, and waited. After minutes of nothing I realized what had drawn the thing to me. I began to picture the dog once more, remembered the lip pulling back and the stained points behind. As nothing continued to happen I realized what was different from the first time. The memory no longer scared me.
I've thought about this, and realized a few things. The first time I crossed the bridge something - not a ghost in usual terms, I have no reason to believe it was ever human - created the breathing sound that I was free to ignore or interpret however I wished. It was only after I returned that the breath resembled a dog's. I think the thing offered me a chance to show it what I feared, and I did. I can think of two reasons why it acted as it did. Perhaps it wanted to help me exorcise my demons, so to speak, or in some way it wanted my fear for its own reasons.
We forget how close we are to nature, but maybe some pat of nature needs us a little closer.