Side by side in two neat rows the dead birds lay still. Someone had lined them up in a macabre fashion, as if by organising the bodies they would suddenly come back to life, ten little birds in a grid of crisped feathers and accusing eyes. Another row lay beneath the next tree. And the next.
At mid-morning the sky turned black as night. Red-tinged smoke surrounded the town, choking, until suddenly the promised doom fell upon them. They waited in the unnatural dark, holding shallow breaths and listening to the roar as the front approached.
A cricket chirped in the bush behind the rest stop. Trying to find a mate was particularly hard today, what with all these people trampling on its territory. Cars were stacked tail to tail over on the tarmac, creeping slowly as a snail past fuel tanks, thirsty and steaming in the heat. A desperate youngster aimed into the bushes, unable to wait. The cricket jumped away.
They crammed onto the bed of the ute, even the dog. It was an island in the billabong, though barely any water remained. It would have to be enough. There was no phone reception. The ute was bogged, but getting out afterwards was not on their minds.
“Put them all in the kitchen, it’s the coolest room in the house.” He followed a junior keeper through the laundry, hands full of transport crate that listed heavily to the left. Poor animal was not used to handling during the day, let alone such a stressful journey. But there were no contingency plans for evacuation with nowhere to go.
“You’re safe now,” he murmured, setting down his charge and patting the crate. He hoped to hell they were.
The countdown was beginning. The woman smoothed her polished nails through her curls, a nervous and unconscious habit. Her suit was a calming shade of cream; her makeup immaculate. She took a breath, but a voice squeaked ‘urgent update’ in her ear and she started the broadcast without a smile, the tears held back until after, after…
The carton was nearly finished. Could they make it stretch? Improvising, he grabbed the scissors and stepped outside. The herbs they’d planted weeks ago were struggling to survive. He shrugged and sheared without remorse. Soon there’d be soup for plenty. He hoped it would help.
A single house stood whole amid a street of devastation, making the strangest mewling in the wind. Laughing, its owner thanked the world for serendipity and entered, calling for his cat.
He watched in silence as the ambulance drove away. Beneath his layers, sweat ran rivulets into sodden boots and he sat down heavily, exhausted. The sun shone hazily through the smoke. A secret passed his lips in a whisper, “That could have been me.”
He lay back and cried.
Embers danced merrily on the wind. Heralds of the unstoppable tide. The fire, that emotionless beast, continued on.
About this piece:
Australia has had an unprecedented catastrophic bushfire season for 2019-2020 which is still ongoing at the time of this post. Twenty-three people have lost their lives, more than 1,500 homes destroyed, at least half a billion animals affected, and more than six million hectares of land destroyed.
There are stories of horror and despair and there are stories of hope. Stories that show the best and worst of humanity, stories that show perspective and stories that spout denialism and blame.
Perhaps you have a story too?
My story is about emotion. It was a response to the January Furious Fiction competition from Australian Writer’s Centre, a 500-word, 55-hour challenge to respond to a set of criteria that changes every month. The bushfires were on my mind, as I’m sure they were for thousands of people.
If you would like to know more, I’m sure your local news outlet would have information on the continuing crisis. If you would like to help, financial donations are very welcome – a number of organisations are raising funds to help the immediate victims, both people and animal, along with firefighters working around the clock, including the Australian Red Cross, St. Vincent de Paul Society, WIRES wildlife rescue, and Rural Fire Services. There are many others as well, but be sure to verify they are not scammers.