‘And his name is Eric.’

Stephen looked at the bird, scratching at the dirt with a foot that was bigger than he’d expected. It jerked forward, pulling him along, the rope which had been dragging in the dirt now taut as the bird took off, zigging this way then that. Stephen held tight, following its lead. He was sure he could hear the laughter of the man that had sold him the bird, but maybe it was just a kookaburra looking down on them from one of the scantily leaved trees.

He’d never seen a bird this big. The turkeys that his grandmother raised for Christmas dinners back home didn’t come close to this creature. But the man who’d sold him the bird had assured him that emus were famous for their sense of direction, and that all he had to do was to follow the bird. He’d looked Stephen up and down and asked him if he could run. Stephen had nodded, though with his new swag he wasn’t sure how fast he could move. But he was determined to explore the nearby area, and when he’d heard about the bird at the pub the night before, he realized that this was just what he needed. A guide, even a wordless one, was better than going it alone.

When Stephen had asked how the bird knew where to go, the man had stroked his beard and said that emus, for that’s what the bird was called, were naturals when it came to knowing where to go to find food and water. From stories that he’d heard in recent weeks, Stephen knew that access to water was essential.

With his swag bouncing on his shoulders, Stephen settled into a steady jog behind the emu, marveling at the length of the bird’s legs and the dense plumage as its feathers shifted as it paced along. They were heading west, he could tell by the angle of the sun, so that was a good sign.

Suddenly the bird stopped. Using one huge foot, it scraped at the ground before pulling up some sort of weed. As it chewed slowly, the bird twisted its head this way and that. Stephen caught his breath, easing his grip on the rope. Then the bird uttered a clicking sound. This altered into a deep, booming note. Stephen stared, startled at the noise, feeling it like a sonic thump to his chest. He looked around, wondering if this was some sort of signal. He should have asked the seller for more instructions, but once the money was handed over, the man had been clear that the emu was Stephen’s and that he didn’t want it back.

Then they were off again, the emu moving faster now. Stephen tugged on the rope but with a burst of speed the bird took off, the rope slithering in the dirt. He followed behind, relieved to finally catch up with Eric who had found a waterhole and was drinking deeply.

This piece was written to a prompt on the Writer’s Digest website. No Take Backs: write about an explorer who buys a strange creature with special powers.

Photo: an emu I met in the Hartley Valley