The Yara-ma-yha-who of Australia are restricted to the forests of the Pacific coast, and their absence elsewhere should be considered a blessing. They are primarily nursery bogies, dissuading children from frequenting dangerous areas.
A yara-ma-yha-who is a grotesque sight, and would be amusing were it not for its ghastly habits. Not more than four feet tall, red, and covered with fur, a yara-ma-yha-who has a disproportionately large head. It can open its toothless mouth like a snake, and its throat and belly are similarly distensible. An adult man can be easily swallowed by a yara-ma-yha-who without discomfort. Its fingers and toes are equipped with suction cups. Yara-ma-yha-who are good climbers, but can only waddle like cockatoos on land.
Thick-leaved fig trees are the yara-ma-yha-who’s favorite haunt. They can wait for days in the branches until some hapless traveler, perhaps seeking shelter from sun or rain, lies under the tree. Lone children are their favorite prey.
When a yara-ma-yha-who attacks, it attaches its hands and feet on its victim’s body, using the suction cups to drain the blood out of them. It does not empty them entirely, but only enough to make them faint. It then leaves its victim for a while, eventually returning to swallow them whole, head first. A little dance lets the food slide down, the meal is washed down with water, and the yara-ma-yha-who takes a nap.
After waking up, the yara-ma-yha-who vomits its prey out. The human is almost always alive and playing dead; there is no reason to fight back as the creature can overpower the strongest man. The yara-ma-yha-who takes five paces, then returns and pokes his victim’s sides with a stick. Then it walks away ten paces before returning to tickle the human under the arm or neck. A fifty-yard stroll is followed up by more tickling, then the yara-ma-yha-who goes behind a bush and sleeps.
This ritual is always repeated. The yara-ma-yha-who know that if they fail to carry out these actions, the spirit of the fig tree will mumble in their ears, causing them to transform into glowing tree mushrooms.
For this reason it is safest to play dead until this point, when you get to your feet and run. “Where have you gone, my victim?” calls the yara-ma-yha-who if it hears you escaping, but its awkward gait makes it easy to outrun. After failing to recapture prey, a spiteful yara-ma-yha-who will drink up all the water in nearby wells and water-holes, leading people to seek liquid from tree sap – and thus end up exposed to yara-ma-yha-who attack.
It is important not to let a yara-ma-yha-who swallow you multiple times. The second time you are swallowed and regurgitated, you become shorter and completely hairless. By the third time you are shorter still, and thick hair grows over your body. Eventully, after enough cycles of swallowing and vomiting, you become a yara-ma-yha-who yourself.
Heuvelmans believed the yara-ma-yha-who was inspired by tarsiers. Furry, big-eyed, and with suction-cup fingers, it is more a mammalian frog than anything else.
Heuvelmans, B. (1958) On the Track of Unknown Animals. Rupert Hart-Davis, London.
Smith, W. R. (2003) Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines. Dover Publications, Mineola.