(Bushfire is an excerpt from Valmai Elkins’ third novel, Destiny Detective, which she is just completing, It’s a double narrative of a mother and daughter, set in the Australian outback, London and Santa Fe. Elkins is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, living in NOTL, who spent her childhood in Melbourne. She says she remembers vividly the night sky over the city turning red for several weeks each summer, and the air smelling of smoke. She would lie in bed at night and think about the koalas and kangaroos trapped in the blaze, and has seen bushfires and the devastation left behind. The excerpt is set in Queensland, 1977.)
The bushfires were among the worst in Queensland’s history. There’d been no rain for weeks and each day the wind blew until the big ghost gum by the house began to groan against the tin roof. At night, Mother and I carried buckets of water from the well to the veggie garden, and the patch of lawn turned brown.
Sunsets blazed red across the bush and large black crows gathered on the dead branch at the top of our oldest gum tree. “The rain must come soon,” said Mother, shading her eyes with her hand as she scanned the horizon. When we turned on the wireless, the news of the day revolved around the drought. Hundreds of sheep and cattle were dying, their waterholes dried mud.
The swagman who’d passed by in the winter for a cup of tea and a chat returned. His face was thinner than I remembered and he no longer whistled. Mother made him tea and sent him down the dusty red track with a bag of plums from our tree.
When the fires started west of Brisbane, the wireless gave reports every hour. At first they were too far away to be a threat to us in Boonawarra. We were the last railway station on the line. But at night the sky was a thick red and we smelled the pungent smoke of burning eucalyptus.
I knew it was serious when Mother talked about cutting down the ghost gum.
“Its branches touch the roof, Ava,” she told me. “If the fires come we’ll lose everything.”
“But it’s your favourite tree. What about your kookaburras?”
The three plump birds Mother fed each morning spent most of their time in the ghost gum. When she offered them scraps of meat they’d swoop down and feed from her hands. Then they’d return to their tree and laugh like maniacs. “Let’s hope it won’t come to that.”
We saw the small cloud of dust before we heard the truck. Two men in khaki shorts and bush hats hurried up our path. “Get your things Mrs. Trent, the fire’s heading up this way.”
Mother’s face was flushed. “I’m not leaving.”
“Everyone’s going to the Hall. You’ll be right as rain up there.”
Mother hesitated. “Where is the fire?”
“She’s down by Kalawari. We reckon if the wind don’t change she’ll be up here tomorrow.” Mother shook her head slowly. I could see they were getting impatient. They tried another tactic. “Think of your little girl. Do you want her burned to death?” “I am thinking of my little girl. As long as I’m here no fire will ever burn down my house or touch my daughter.”
The men looked at each other. Then the older one, his face tanned and sooty, said,
“You’re being a bloody fool, Alice Trent, but if that’s what you want it’s a free country.”
They jumped in the truck and slammed the doors. We watched the red dust until it settled.
“We’re not going to be burned, are we Mummy?” “Ava, would I ever let anything happen to you?”
At dawn I heard the ring of the axe and I knew she was cutting down the ghost gum. It didn’t occur to her to find a man to chop down the tree; there wasn’t a man anywhere near our track and Mother was a bush woman. Bush women don’t ask for help. I wished I were stronger, but at seven, my arms were thin and scrawny.
I tried to get Mother to drink the tea I took her but she didn’t touch it. The long braid she wore down her back had come loose and was blowing in her eyes.
Hours later I heard the crash of the tree as it fell away from the house, ripping into the undergrowth. Mother’s dress was soaked and her eyes had a wild expression. There was no sign of the three kookaburras.
Mother was opening a tin of tomato soup when we heard the bell. It was not the Sunday tolling of St. Aidan’s. It was the bell at the Shire Hall and we knew it was clanging to summon the volunteer firefighters. She placed the tin on the wooden table.
“You do it, Ava, I’m going to water the house.” “No. I’m coming to help.” Mother did not refuse. For the next hour we carried buckets from the well and hurled water against the verandah, all around the wooden house until it steamed.
Then, in the distance, we saw the fire. It was curling through the tops of the gum trees fanned by the relentless wind, a giant wave of red and orange. Moments later the rabbits appeared, hundreds of them, running towards us, skipping crazily, their eyes bulging in terror. We heard the roar of the flames.
I looked at Mother. She took my hand, not running, but walking quickly, through the backyard where she opened the gate to the hen house. We passed the woodshed and climbed the fence into the bush. When we came to the water hole she took her knife and cut a reed; bullrushes, we called them. She handed me a length.
“If the fire comes, we’ll hide in the water and breathe through our reeds. This is an adventure, isn’t it?” And she smiled. I was sure we would be safe. Mother was smiling. Then she closed her eyes and I could see her lips moving. I knew she was asking St. Michael to keep her house safe.
We crouched by the billabong. Terrified animals kept coming out of the bush: rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, snakes and a koala. They paid no attention to each other or to us.
Mother opened her eyes. “Let’s play alphabetical animals,” she suggested. “I’ll start. A is for anteater.” “A is for ant. I can have that, can’t I? An ant is different from an anteater.” “B is for bandicoot.” “And bat.”
We were up to W when we heard a sudden gust of wind in the gum trees above us. Mother looked up. “the wind’s changed,” she whispered. “Thank you, St. Michael.”
“W is for watchdog,” I said triumphantly.
Mother kept us by the water ’til the sun went down. We knew the danger had passed when the animals began to disappear into the bush. We returned to the house.
The wind had turned right at the mouth of our track. Beyond was nothing but a desolation of smouldering black vegetation. The smell hurt my nose and a dust of fine black soot covered our house.
Just after dark the two men returned. “Jeez, you were lucky!” said the one who’d called Mother a bloody fool. But Mother and I knew it was not luck. Mother did not believe in luck, but her faith in
St. Michael never wavered.