There has never been a better or worse time for fiction than right now.
I sat down to write and I couldn’t decide on a topic, an idea, or settle down with a single thought. My head was too full of bushfires, family arguments, politics, blame, images of stiff, blackened livestock corpses, red gloom and our nation’s own boat people fleeing the terror of their own backyards.
I sought fiction for distraction, creation, a balm for an overexcited brain. A brain disturbed by updates and yet incapable of looking away; upset by dramatic scenes and yet attempting not to be swept up in the drama. These fires are not affecting me. Except that they are affecting everyone.
Because this is earth’s bitter inheritance; the thanks of a grateful population for a richly abundant planet that supported life in so many forms that it allowed humans to evolve – in what now seems a grim error of nature.
We need stories to get us through – stories of hope and of strength. Stories of survival. But also the stories of loss and devastation – the ones that serve as either a warning or reminder, or both. Though we desperately need stories right now, those stories are not mine to tell.
So to escape from the incessant stream of news and reportage and think about something else, if only for a few moments, we need to come up with our own fiction. The kind that gives us a break from the hideous reality. To recharge and clear the murk and angst and worry from the overactive organ between our ears. A holiday from what’s real and monstrous and haunting us during the darkened daytime. Fiction could be just what we need.
However, fiction is what we continue to get. From people in positions of power, who should know better, we hear stories about how these fires have always been around, and that climate change is not a factor. About how no one could have foreseen this (they did) and nobody warned them (they did). They tell us the stories of how well they have responded, and how great they are as leaders, and how they really care about all Australians, quiet Australians.
They certainly don’t care about the screaming Australians – those fighting fires to save their farms, their homes, their pets and their businesses and then fleeing for their lives. Or the ones who have to stand by and bear witness, unable to contribute much more than money, who can only angrily read and repeat the mantra that we need change now, before we obliterate our lives and livelihoods.
No, perhaps we can’t have fiction right now. In this post-truth world we need our facts to reassure ourselves that we are not insane, that our land – so much of it – really is burning, and like never before. Because we are too busy making history to tell our story yet. It may be repeated at some future time, in not so many years, when the last ones left stand on a blackened, smoky heap and congratulate themselves on the everlasting fiction that ‘it had nothing to do with climate change’.
Dead hearts (Tree 2.0)
As the sun comes up over the ridge, it paints my cousins first with its pastel light. The green grey of their canopies bristle with golden tips and morning light steals its way through, warming their leaves as they turn to greet the sun.
The sky thaws from ice white to pale blue and the mist rises slowly. A veil is lifted from us, spreading the glow to my brothers and sisters in their turn, then to me, and our blood begins to loosen in our limbs. We nod at each other in the breeze from the south and tend to our tenants and friends.
We are one village next to the other, and our branches are busy. In places, our fluids seep to feed the tiniest of the creepers and ones that flutter prettily amongst us. Under our coverings, lizards scurry in ticklish ways, dodging the webs and many eyes of the eight-legged crawlers. Feathered ones use their pointed beaks to clear our coverings of mining beetles and foraging ants. And while the feathered ones feast, the furred ones sleep, a nights’ hunting and nesting over until the sun goes down again, many hours from now.
When the sun comes over it is hard. There is a note in the breeze that comes from the north, bringing the scent of the land far beyond the vale. The odour of livestock, twitching their tails to bat the flies; and asphalt, heated and melting; and the dried dirt thirsty for rain. It also carries the signs of our further away cousins – the gusts carry their eucalypt, with mint and citric tangs freshening the air. The currents pick up our leaves and urge them to dance, at first playful, but increasingly more demanding. We begin to feel the force of this north wind and feel now that it brings with it a kind of dusted electricity.
The sharp zest of ozone rends the air. There was a crack; a spear from the sky lit up a cousin on the ridge. There is a new scent in the air – first clean, and then dirty, the smell is a choking smell, a warning and a beacon.The cousin on the ridge is alight.
Cockatoos screech through the sky letting us all know that danger is close. There is something alive upon the hill, but it signals death. What began with one cousin is already spreading to his brothers and sisters, and their tenants flee, taking to the sky. The branches interconnected and intertwining, form a highway from limb to limb as life pours away from the orange and red carnage up on the slope. The heat is already moving through the crowds and leaving behind it blackening shapes. You cannot hear it, but there is screaming.
My sleeping friends are roused – limbed creatures, with fur or without, shake off their torpor to sniff the air, creep and then dash down my length and along my branches, seeking escape in an instinctive sprint for their lives. The crackle from the hill becomes a roar, but more pressing is the heat. It comes in a blast, forcing small beasts to wing. The air swarms with fugitives of flight, and runners swarm the ground beneath our feet like rivulets to the sea. Every living thing here has only one choice. Go.
We brace for the blaze.
Billows of smoke tumble down the hill and rush over us in a turbulent wave. The flame follows fast, scours our surfaces first, and takes hold of our clothes. Infected all over, we burn, and the slower tenants in our sleeves arch their backs and submit to their fates. The heat has created its own momentum, its own weather. Its turbulence grips us and shakes us to our core.
The wildfire surges on, consuming and reducing us – cousins, brothers, sisters, all. Our crowns are devoured in seconds, and as we stand in our collective pyre, we begin to shed our outers. Flaking into piles below are the remnants of our wooded selves – lost limbs crash onto the ground like corpses to a mass grave, and still the fire licks until all the black turns to grey and flies away in flakes.
In years gone by, this fire would have burned fiercely, but burned out. At the barest sign of irrigation, our epicormic buds of white, and then green shoots, would have forced their way to the surface to grasp onto life again.
But not anymore. No tendrils will grow in strength to again be a home for the web-makers, the ticklish tongue flickers, the foragers and hunters, the furred and feathered nesters who are now, if not extinct, then decisively beaten. This fire has been too hot, this summer too endless, this land its driest and most permanently altered. In the smouldering ash, we observe the futile attempts of the two-legged as they try to retrieve all that has been lost.
This time, it is all too late.