“I Know that I Know Nothing”
Michael Dominic (The University of Western Australia, Australia)
Nugget, Western Australia, is a city on the western edge of the Nullarbor. It was officially recognised as a city when I was a child, when its population surpassed 25,000. The settlement was originally named O’Conner’s Find in 1893, after Irish prospector, Seamus O’Conner, discovered gold at the base of Mount Billy Goat (which is in fact a hill, not a mountain). In 1901, when the separate British colonies in Australia agreed to unite and form the Federation of Australia, O’Conner’s Find was renamed to Nugget.
To this day, Nugget still booms like a modern goldrush town. That’s the reason tourists come to the city – to visit its historic mines, museums, and its main street, O’Conner Street. When seen from the sky, the antique buildings lining O’Conner Street (old pubs, hotels, and banks that seem to be straight from the Wild West) form a straight, brownish line amidst the white and silver modern buildings. It ends in a T-junction where it connects with a highway. Like a marker on a treasure map, O’Conner Street points right at Mount Billy Goat on the other side of the highway. It’s an uncanny reminder of the boon once found at the site by Seamus O’Conner in 1893… A reminder of how my life was changed when I was 13 years old in 1993.
Tomorrow, I’ll finally confront the Beast that cursed my life in 1993. Not long after it happened, I fled to Perth. At first, I stayed at homeless shelters for youths, and eventually acquired scholarships to finish high-school and to attend university. I majored in philosophy, which opened my mind to modes of thought capable of challenging my perception, and indeed, the very idea, of the Beast. Now, in 2020, after 27 years, I know that I’m ready to defeat this monster. There’s something mysterious and ineffable about the number 27, something which represents transition and new beginning. Words cannot describe the feeling which facilitates my certainty – all I can say is that I’m now ready to end the curse than began 27 years ago.
As I drive along the Great Eastern Highway from Perth to Nugget, I think about the news reports that headlined the TV all those years ago in 1993. Although VHS recordings of the reports are staples on YouTube playlists of ufology groups – where they’re used to support fringe theories of extra-terrestrial life – I’ve refrained from watching them, until last night. Perhaps, because it’s only now that I’m strong enough to confront the past. “Tonight, Monday, fifth of July nineteen ninety-three, on Golden West News,” was what one newsreader said, “UFO in the sky. A Nugget woman and her son claim their car is attacked by an unidentified flying object while travelling on the Nullarbor. They were just outside Nugget and on their way to Adelaide for the school holidays at five-thirty this morning, when they say a bright light appeared above them, picked up their Holden Commodore, and then dropped it. Fiona MacDonald and her son were in shock when they told their story to Nugget police.”
But it was actually Perth’s version of A Current Affair that night (hosted by Charles Chaff) that turned that terrifying event into something of a national mockery.
“Thanks for joining us all the way from Nugget,” was what Charles said, almost smirking. “Ms MacDonald, do you still believe it was a UFO that landed on your car?” The scene then cut to Mother and me, seated side-by-side in a small Nugget television studio. After my father left when I was three years old, Fiona, as I now call her, started using her maiden name again.
“I never said it was a UFO,” she answered with a thick Scottish accent. “Actually, only my son saw it, which he described as being a bright light. But when it landed on our car and Samuel started screaming, I knew it was real.”
“Sam, did you see anything but a bright light?” Charles asked.
“Well,” Fiona said before I could respond, “I know it was a demon, hidden within the light.” A second camera drew towards her. The close-up showed she was frail and exhausted. Whenever she talked about religion, her eyes became wide, her skin became gooseflesh, and she held her head high. With her frizzed hair, she looked like a madwoman. “Jesus allowed it to happen so we could inform you all of the spiritual warfare going on. The end is coming.” These types of comments were now typical. After my father left, Fiona abandoned Catholicism and found solace in a small non-denominational church in a rundown part of Nugget.
When the scene cut back to Charles, he had covered his mouth with his hand. He was shocked – his prior smugness transmogrified. He recomposed himself. “Samuel, can you tell us what really did happen?”
“Well, I was sleeping and when I woke up, I saw a light far ahead.” When I watched the video last night, I noticed how distressed I was. I nervously looked into the second camera as it drew towards me. “I asked Mum if it was a spaceship, because it seemed to fade and reappear, and it jumped about a bit. But she couldn’t see it. She told me not to be silly. And when we got closer it shot kilometres into the air, and then it was kilometres behind us. Then it was right behind us and it landed on the car.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. “Then what happened?”
“I panicked and shouted, and then Mum could hear the thing above us too, so she started screaming as well. So, I told her to plant her foot down.”
“Sam, when you spoke to our producer, you admitted to being diagnosed three months ago with a hypnagogic disorder – a state in which a person can have dreams when drowsy or when waking up. Do you think you dreamt this thing? That you panicked, causing your mum to share your hallucination?”
“No way,” Fiona blurted. “At first, I didn’t believe him, but I heard it landing on the car. I could feel its evil.”
“Sam,” Charles put his hand to his earpiece. “Sam, when you told your mum ‘to plant her foot down’, how fast did she go?”
“Oh, about two-hundred kilometres,” Fiona said, almost proudly.
“That’s very fast. Have you driven that fast before?”
“No, I haven’t,” she answered.
Charles was silent for a moment. “And the car is capable of doing two-hundred kilometres an hour?”
“Yeah,” she replied swiftly.
“Was the car on the road at all times or was it lifted off as reported?”
“No, it was lifted off,” she said.
“For how long?”
“We think a few minutes. But then I started praying and it dropped the car and shot off. So, I turned the car around and headed back towards Nugget to inform you all of God’s glory.”
There was another elongated silence, as Charles returned his hand to his earpiece. “But, Ms MacDonald, if the car was dropped from the air at a speed of up to two-hundred kilometres an hour, how come you didn’t lose control when the car hit the road?”
Fiona thought briefly. “Probably because the thing on the roof provided weight. It was probably still sticking to the roof when our wheels landed on the road; it kept the car stable.”
“And did the police find any marks on the car’s roof? Any physical evidence of this thing?”
“They didn’t find anything. But that’s part of the point: faith,” she said sternly. “You all must have faith in the glory of God, in his triumph over the Devil.”
“How do we know this really happened? A lot of our viewers would think you’re overreacting to your son’s imagination. That in the panic, you both imagined the car was lifted from the road. Do you realise that, Ms MacDonald?”
“That’s not true,” Fiona huffed. “By God Almighty, it’s not true.”
“Have you ever been psychologically assessed?”
“Me? What for?” she scowled.
“Had you been drinking?”
“Were you tired?”
“A bit tired, but not enough to imagine a thing like that.”
“What about you, Sam, how do you feel about it all?”
“Was very scary.” I then mumbled something which Charles, and which even Fiona, didn’t seem to understand. Something which I barely understood when I watched the video last night. It was something like: “The ayen spoke in telepathics. He said he’s gonna get me like he did last time, but I said I don’t believe in you, so that’s when he went away.” I then looked down at the floor in a fluster.
Did I just say the alien said he’s gonna get me like last time? I remember thinking after I said those words. But when did he get me before? I was still unaware how this Beast had affected my memory.
Charles scratched the back of his neck. He had no idea what I had said. “Just summing up, do you’ve any idea what this thing really could’ve been?”
“I think a UFO,” I said, unintentionally interrupting Fiona. “It was shaped like this.” I began moving my index fingers in the air, making a dome shape, when the second camera began its close-up again. “Hang on,” I looked at the approaching camera, goofily repeating the hand movement. “It was shaped like this, and it had a blueish colour in the centre.” I twiddled my finger in the centre of the invisible dome.
“It was the Devil’s work, Samuel!” Fiona growled. The scene cut to her grimacing face. “He wants to lead you astray from God. Stop saying it was a UFO. It was a demon!”
Charles looked dismayed. He inhaled deeply. “Well, thank you very much for telling us your story, and ah, take it easy on the roads.” His eyebrow rose as he looked into the camera. “That was Fiona and Sam MacDonald, and their… bizarre, encounter on the Nullarbor Plain.”
Who could really say what that thing was? At first, I thought it was an alien in a UFO, but I soon came to believe that it was a monster that could alter its form. My first inclination to this insight occurred after we returned to Nugget. Fiona had been instructed by Pastor Denny to keep me house-bound until the following Sunday, until she could bring me to her church for the ritual called ‘the cleansing’. She even barred me from seeing my friends, fearing that they would influence my perception of this thing she called a demon. “God doesn’t want you poisoning your mind by listening to the babble of the unsaved. They talk about aliens, spaceships, Star Wars, and all other devil-talk. Remember, that thing was a demon!”
But after several failed attempts, my two best friends, Kareem and Kim-Marie, finally managed to see me. They had telephoned and knocked on the front door every day for a few days, each time told by Fiona that I was bed-ridden with sickness. But on Friday night, aware of Fiona’s overbearing protection, they knocked on my bedroom window at about 11 p.m. I opted to meet them outside, worried they would be heard if I let them inside my bedroom. I put on my nightgown and stepped through the window and into the garden.
Unsurprisingly, they told me that I had become a laughingstock among our contemporaries. But I felt fortunate that Kareem and Kim understood how embarrassed I was by Fiona’s televised tirade. After that, the conversation shifted to something that terrified me. Kim asked if I remembered the time when Magnus, a Wangai boy from our class, had presented one of his grandfather’s drawings for show-and-tell. I instantly recalled the picture to which she referred. The drawing was of an orb under the starry sky, ascending over bushes, emitting white rays depicted via negative space between strokes of charcoal. The Wangai had inhabited the Nugget region for thousands of years prior to the colonisation of Australia, and Magnus had said that his culture preserved ancient stories of the orb. He said that it was known by many names, most commonly called the ‘Min Min’, and that it behaves just as I had experienced it: that it appears seemingly from nowhere, can execute unimaginable feats of aerobatics, and can suddenly disappear. He also said that if it catches you, that you’re never seen again. I remember my spine chilling when Kim and I reviewed what Magnus had said. It meant that the attacking light really existed.
“Remember, Magnus also said that inside the light is a type of beast that can change its form,” Kim continued. “And he said that the aura it emanates is an illusion, because our minds can’t perceive its true form. That’s why we see it as light.”
“Yeah,” Kareem added. “Magnus also said that it can be defeated by telling it that you don’t believe in it, just as you said you did on the TV.”
A shape-shifting beast that hides within light, that vanishes when you say you don’t believe in it. The thought sent another chill through my body. I refrained from mentioning to Kareem and Kim how terrified I actually was, for I feared acknowledging out loud the existence of this fiend. I quickly changed the subject. “I wonder if that other weird thing Magnus once said is true? About how he said that it was his own great grandparents who showed Seamus O’Conner the gold at Mount Billy Goat… that O’Conner’s discovery was actually a theft.”
“Didn’t he also say that a falling star caused the cave at the bottom of Mount Billy Goat?” Kareem added. “That that’s how the Wangai initially found gold under the hill?”
Kim had a look of sudden realisation. No one said it, but we all realised that the falling star could be the same light-emitting monster. “We have to go there and take a look around,” she rallied.
“No frickin’ way,” I said. “I’m not going there. If that place really is where this thing once landed, why would I go there? And if it is a shape-shifting beast, how would we know if we came across it? It might take on any form.”
“It’s just that we already know how to defeat it – by telling it we don’t believe in it,” Kim explained. “That place might be its home, and if we go there, maybe we’ll get rid of it forever.”
Kareem nodded in agreement.
“No way,” I repeated. I looked back into my bedroom and saw 11:27 p.m. glowing from the bedside clock. After assuring Kareem and Kim that we would resume the conversation later, I climbed back into my bedroom. I remember struggling to get to sleep, which was commonplace since the Nullarbor incident. But now, with the apparent evidence that the Beast’s territory straddled Nugget, I found it even harder to fall asleep. After an incalculable amount of time, I became semi-conscious of memories of basketball, Sega games, and BMX-riding. They passed through my mind as ephemeral images— they disappeared as I jolted… My eyes opened.
The sound of footsteps on the roof. Were they coming from outside on the rooftop or from inside the attic? Either way, the steps drew closer to my bedroom. I stiffened, petrified, unable to flee my bed. All I could do was turn my eyes towards the ceiling.
In a perversion of 1 Samuel 3:4, it whispered my name. “Sam-yoo-el.” My body instantly went cold. “I’m gonna get you again.”
I was frank with Fiona and told her that I had heard the footsteps and the voice after conversing with my friends. She was furious, and said God allowed it to happen because I had disobeyed her. My own inclination was that it happened because my friends and I had discussed how to rid the thing – perhaps it was threatened by this and sought to frighten me.
The following morning, Fiona insisted that we see Pastor Denny as soon as possible. He usually spent Saturday mornings in the church preparing for Sunday’s sermon. She wanted to ask him to perform the cleansing ritual immediately, in the hope of warding off the spectral menace. I had seen the cleansing performed on others at the church, and it horrified me… I wasn’t allowed to speak to others of the ritual, since it involved things, as Fiona said, which the unsaved simply wouldn’t understand… As we drove to the church, I begged Fiona not to put me through the ritual. I also begged to stay at Kareem’s that night, for fear of hearing the phantom voice again. She eventually conceded to the latter.
Fiona parked the car outside that beat-up church. Its façade was conjoined to the adjacent buildings. But this building’s frontage was made of wooden boards, all rickety and much more worn than the others. Fiona opened the door with a key bestowed to her for upkeeping the amenities. As we entered, I stepped over the rips in the carpet; a cool breeze came through the row of broken windows high on the side wall.
“Dionysus,” Fiona said affectionately. He sat at a drumkit in the far corner, between guitars and a microphone, writing on papers spread on top of the floor tom.
“Praise Jesus,” he smiled, a bit astonished. He walked toward us, passing the podium. “What a surprise. But I thought you weren’t bringing the boy until tomorrow.”
Fiona explained how I had heard the disembodied voice, and she requested that Denny cleanse me then and there. But Denny said that since we were afflicted by a powerful demon, the ritual would be more effective with the other church-goers present. He advised us to come back on Sunday when the whole congregation could participate.
“If you can’t do a cleansing, then at least take him into your office like last time,” Fiona complained. “When I needed him to straighten up before, whatever you did in there worked. Please, do it again… for me.”
He fixated on me with those ogling, brown eyes. I knew he was relishing the memory of our private session that had happened three months prior. “Well…” he said, deliberating—
There was a knock at the front door. He stood up, almost startled. The rhinestone on his belt buckle twinkled. The artificial jewel was a shade of sky-blue that conjured unrecallable memories of our private encounter… For some reason, I could only remember snippets of that session. Denny paced to the door.
A woman who I did not know entered. Probably a new member. Denny then went to his office and led out a boy, perhaps ten years old. He was crying. Fiona frowned and ground her teeth. Denny had conducted a private healing for this boy, but he declined doing one for me.
Fiona allowed me to go to Kareem’s just after lunch that day. Although, she did make a stern point about being home early on Sunday morning so that we could be on time for the cleansing. We met with Kim, and Magnus, whom we had all now taking a liking to. The three of them insisted that we investigate Mount Billy Goat. Naturally, I refused. Instead, we took our bikes to the crude BMX track that was constructed and maintained by Nugget’s kids. It was in the bush just beyond the highway that separated Nugget’s residential zones from its mines. The area was elevated, and from there we could see Mount Billy Goat. Kim soared over dirt mounds like a seasoned professional. Kareem and Magnus competed to see who could do the highest bunny hop. My preference was speed. I enjoyed going as fast as I could around the circuit.
At some point in the afternoon, something in the sky caught my attention. Though I pointed at it, my friends thought I was imagining things. But after I described it as something like a shooting star, only smaller, they began to see it too. It descended towards Mount Billy Goat and blazed into its cave. We knew it was the shape-shifting terror, and of course my friends wanted to go there and explore, but I again refused. I insisted on notifying the police. My friends eventually agreed, and we rode back to Kareem’s house. Kareem made the phone call. I considered riding home to tell Fiona as well, but I knew it would’ve only complicated matters. She would’ve scolded me in front of my friends and would’ve gone on a religious rant in front of them too.
Not long after Kareem telephoned the police, an army jeep appeared in the driveway. Two uniformed men, identifying themselves to Kareem’s parents as military officials, spoke to us. These same two men had in fact tried talking to Fiona on the night of the Nullarbor incident, but she chased them off our property. As we sat in Kareem’s lounge room, they said that what I experienced on the Nullarbor was a waking dream, a symptom of my hypnagogic disorder. They said that due to my heightened stress, I not only caused the hallucination to recur at the BMX track, but that I caused hysteria in my friends, prompting them to share the hallucination. They supported their explanation with the fact that there were no other reports of the light on the Nullarbor, nor above Mount Billy Goat. At first, we maintained that the light was real. But when it became clear that Kareem’s parents sided with the officials’ point of view, in the interest of ending the adults’ refutations, we admitted that we were wrong.
That night, Kim and Magnus stayed at Kareem’s too.
“No… stop… please… stop…”
“Get him some water, Kareem.” I remember looking up, seeing Kareem and his mother looking down at me. My sleeping bag was soaked with sweat. Kim and Magnus were looking over from their own sleeping bags.
“What happened?” one of them asked, I don’t remember who.
What did happen? It seemed my memory of that nightmare had evaporated into the ether. All I could remember was the troll from the picture book Three Billy Goats Gruff, looking down at me with a nefarious grin. I had read the book when I was seven, and the aberrant dichotomy of the troll terrified me: a cartoonish figure coloured crayon-blue with Lisa Simpson-esque zigzags for hair – and with sharklike teeth… A children’s book character that stalked and consumed goats. But in my dream, oddly, it was a bit different. It had an azure gem embedded in its navel, and a serpent protruded from its groin. Its forked tongue licked me, and it spat venom on my face. “Sam-yoo-el,” I remember the troll whispering, “I’m gonna get ya like last time.”
The Beast, just as Magnus had said, had taken on a different form. It assumed the appearance of a monster from a book that scared me. But how did it know that the troll scared me? And why did it say it got me before? I tried to force myself to recall a time when I was attacked by this thing. Like the Nullarbor encounter, it says it’s gotten me before – which I don’t remember!
The following day, I arrived at the church on time. I sat on a chair in the front row after the cleansing. It was so overwhelming, I could barely remember it, like that day three months prior when I had the private session with Denny. All I could recall of the cleansing were fragmented memories… I stood in front of Denny at the podium. At first, he prayed in English, petitioning God to transmit through his body divine power. He became louder and started speaking in tongues, his hand hovering over my head… The other church members surrounded me, holding out their hands. Their faces writhed passionately; they cried, drops of spit landed in my hair… The constant, incoherent sound – their glossolalia, howls, moans – made me flushed and faint with vertigo… Recipients of the ritual, I previously observed, would eventually become overwhelmed and would convulse, collapse, and tremble on the floor as though epileptic… But though I wavered like a tree battered in a storm, I didn’t fall over… And after an unknown amount of time, I found myself sitting in the front row, Fiona looking at me, shame and anger in her eyes. I didn’t catch the spirit – I didn’t convulse on the floor in a fit of ecstasy – a serious display of disbelief. As far as she was concerned, the rite was unsuccessful, and the Beast would be back to haunt me.
After another failed attempt at visiting me in the afternoon, my friends knocked on my window late in the evening. They wanted to see how I was faring after the previous night’s nightmare. I met them in the garden, and against Fiona’s instructions, I spoke to them of the cleansing. I explained how it was supposed to rid me of the menacing goings-on, and how, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was told that that procedure was the communication of God’s love, that I would’ve equated it with rape. How could God’s love be expressed with such zeal and near-violence, with such hypnotic repetitions of glossolalia? With such intent on entrancing and subduing my mind? The experience was like a violation of my soul. How could Denny, an alleged bringer of light, incite such feelings of fear and evil? The cleansing, which was supposed to repel the encroaching Beast, was in fact just as scary as the Beast.
Admittedly, I didn’t communicate my feelings to my friends with the same articulateness, but the meaning was the same. Thankfully, they didn’t judge me. In fact, Kim suggested an alternative method to countering the Beast. She had a budding interest in the Buddhist philosophy of her Korean heritage, and she recommended that we attempt a form of meditation. It was a procedure whereby practitioners could liberate themselves from the materiality of the world by intuiting the nothingness underlying existence. By approximating this supposed void, from which all things arise and into which they perish, she said that we might make the Beast realise that we’re not scared of it. It would know, that we would know, that there is something greater and more powerful than it; that like us, it is a mere thing in contrast to the infinite unknown. It might then leave me alone. The philosophy was complex, but I nevertheless agreed to participate in the exercise.
Kim instructed us on how to assume asanas. We sat in a circle in the garden. She then told us to close our eyes, clear our thoughts, and focus on nothingness. We were guided by her words, imagining the things around us dissolving in the darkness. But that’s all that happened. We didn’t achieve any sort of grand epiphany, and after some time, we agreed to go our separate ways for the night.
That night, as I was drifting to sleep, I recalled the time I was alone with Denny in his office. Perhaps because I was relaxed due to the meditation, I remembered exactly what had happened during that private session. Denny was like the light on the Nullarbor – a light which concealed evil. The blue rhinestone on his belt buckle pressed into my forehead. “We will do this again,” he grinned through a halo. His aura hid his perversion and wretchedness. That encounter on the Nullarbor was not a UFO or the Min Min, it was a symptom of my hypnagogic disorder. It was a waking dream – a nightmarish expression of what had happened in Denny’s office! The disembodied voice and fragmented vision of the troll were lurid flashbacks of that same experience!
It was when I awoke from that dream that I decided to flee Fiona and her tendency to acquiesce to the Beast’s tastes. I wanted nothing more to do with Nugget – not even my friends, I felt, would be capable of understanding. I hitchhiked to Perth, where I eventually attained my degree in philosophy. I chose this major, perhaps because I was inspired by Kim’s attempt at defeating the Beast with the power of thought. Or, perhaps it was because I wanted to rationalise all that had happened. As it turns out, the most important thing I learnt at university was Socrates’ famed maxim, ‘I know that I know nothing’. Who can say what reality really is, what God really is, what the meaning of life really is? The key to understanding existence is that none of these things can be explained. We live in a universe that’s inherently unknowable. The only certainty to be had is that we know nothing. As Kim once said, nothingness underlies existence.
Now, as I drive through Nugget’s streets, I’m confident that I know how to defeat the Beast – by telling it that I don’t believe in it, by saying that it’ll eventually perish into nothingness. It can’t hurt me anymore. The dogma it preached is futile against the unknowability of reality. As I park my car in front of the Beast’s home, I quietly hope it still lives there. I look at the rickety wood of the church’s façade, hoping it’s still inside.
Michael Dominic has completed a double major in Philosophy and Theology. He sought to pursue his passion for creative writing by returning to University of Western Australia to begin a double major in English and Classical Studies. In 2020, he will adapt his Honours dissertation into his PhD in Creative Writing.