(I wrote this for a competition in which there was a 1000 word limit. It didn’t win so, several months later, I think I will publish it here.)
It turns out that waiting is the hard part. You decide that waiting needs to be redefined to mean “empty space; opportunity for useless worry.”
As the weeks pass, nothing visibly changes. The ground is dusty and bare, the sky heavy and grey. In certain breezes, the usually melodious wind chimes sound alarming.
You stare eastward, trying to decipher messages from beyond the hills. Mt Mullooga dives (steep and slow by turns) to the dry river bed. Then the ground rises, two hundred uneven, bushy metres to the house you built with Tom. You scan the house, the vegetable patch, the avocado trees, the workshop, a struggling silky oak and the army of self-sewn stringy-barks. This is your battleground.
Your son is helping you chain-saw saplings, drag the branches to be mulched, rake around the big apple gums and move the firewood pile further from the house. Down in the orchard, you can see Tom on the tractor, cutting the grass back to brown stubble.
“Time for a cuppa?” you suggest. Ben swipes a filthy hand through a sweat-bead, leaving a dark smear on his face. He nods but bends again to his rake, the flies re-settling on the triangle of sweat that darkens the back of his blue shirt.
You keep working until Tom arrives on the tractor, its diesel roar suddenly cutting to stillness by the workshop. Ben’s wife calls from the house that tea is ready. Tom’s brother, Andrew, appears from where he has been loading a trailer with unwanted junk. You all gather on the verandah. Conversation is clipped. A two-way radio sits in the middle of the table, fuzzing occasionally.
At night, your muscles twitch and wake you up. You dream intermittently – driving and driving, monochrome landscape at night, headlights like pale funnels through the smoke. It’s never certain where you are driving to.
Finally, on an awful hot and windy day, it comes. The red lick, the dark bloodied smoke billowing over the hills. You stand on the verandah and watch it, relief flooding through you. At last, you can see it. At last it’s not a useless worry. It’s real and able to be fought.
The local fire captain arrives with a five thousand litre water-tanker. “You can keep this,” he says “until it’s over.” Then he’s gone, with his dog, twenty other places to be.
You watch the fire. The wind slaps it full in the face, should hold it back, but it races down the hill anyway, as if the laws of physics no longer apply.
Some neighbours arrive to help. That night, it is they who keep the fire at bay. They suggest you take a break. You all sit on the verandah and eat salad, watching the twinkling red lights just across the river-bed. In the dark, it is beautiful. But quite suddenly, you realize that the waiting isn’t over. The fire is down there. You are still in its path. You shake your head and find a Sudoku to work on.
Before bed, you take a shower. The cold tap runs almost hot. You let it tickle over your muscles. Afterwards, you stand naked in the breezy dark, glorying in the cool ripple of goose pimples over your skin.
Three cooler days. Constant vigilance is essential – investigating smoke plumes, checking for spot fires, checking irrigation lines, keeping in touch with neighbours. Concerned friends ring. You ask Sarah to talk to them, holding your ribs together with work-weary arms. You walk away – Sarah’s voice in the other room feels like a ratchet tightening your skin.
During the mornings, the shuddering thunder of helicopters is constant. Their racket contrasts with their grace and precision as they carry precious buckets of water from river-pools and drop them right on target. If you squint, you can see the heads of the pilots, leaning out.
You set up night-watch schedules. You find you like walking over the rocky river bed at two in the morning. One night, you sit for a while, on a warm, rough boulder amongst the smoke and glowing embers. You find a snake skin – its wispy beauty. A lonely cricket chirrups. Creatures scritch around, fossicking hungrily. The sky is absolutely black.
Day four starts no differently. Now that the fire is here, at your doorstep, what will make it go away? You shrug impatiently, knowing the answer. Rain. Only rain. Exhaustion is your shadow. Numbers on the Sudoku grid waver and ooze.
You’re on the verandah when the walkie-talkie on your hip suddenly blares to life. A fire in the gully to the west. Flames ten metres tall. Sarah is calling 000.
You run to the ute with it’s fire-fighting set-up ready to go. Ben is directing Andrew who is backing the water-tanker to a strategic point near the workshop. They both grab hoses and set to work. You park the ute a safe distance from the orchard. Tom is waiting to help you start the pump.
Two helicopters arrive… or is it three? One hovers directly above the house, achieving a smooth momentum that swings the bucket beneath it. The pilot expertly drizzles water over the roof to fill the gutters.
The smoke is choking. Nobody had time to grab masks. You cough and splutter and lift your collar over your nose and mouth. Behind you, a tree in the gully falls with a crash. Ben emerges from the smoke, his hose still on his shoulder, legs black, glasses grubby. A small nest of leaves smoulder on the crown of his hat. You’re about to yell a warning to him, but at that moment he points his hose skyward and a jet of water showers him. He closes his eyes, enjoying the cool rush. The leaves skid off behind him.
Two hours later, the helicopters peel off to the east. The house is safe. Round one is done. You slip quickly away, fall like timber across your mattress. Burnt out.
The Sudoku lies forgotten under your bed.