This is a short story I wrote for a creative writing subject last year. I had the core idea a while before then but I’d been kind of stuck with trying to expand it to reasonable length. The restriction of 2000 words really helped, because it’s about the right length for this story.
A couple things I should mention. I have no first-hand or really even near-first hand experience with divorce, something I’m grateful for. However, I am tempted to rewrite it reflect an all together different family tension I’ve come to know. But that’s something for another story.
Secondly, I haven’t really met and got to know any aboriginals. This is a sad fact but I’ve tried my best not to offend. However, I really don’t think the story would work properly without Sally just how she is.
So without further ado here it is:
The alarm clock didn’t go off, nor did I have to get up. I had no homework, no job, no worries and I was suffocating. My best friends were at schoolies in Queensland or Bali, a couple were even backpacking Europe. Meanwhile, I hadn’t chosen to go anywhere.
My morning self-pity ritual done, I got up. The clear sky invited me outside. This early in summer it was still a pleasant, not the heavy heat of January. I realised I had nothing to do. I’d already done everything I promised I’d do after VCE: the movies and time with friends. Wandering down the street I saw the Shack’s new renter had arrived.
The Shack was a leased Californian bungalow – with a fast turnover. It sheltered in the shade of an old gum, bargeboards peeling and porch beam slumping where its column had been. It was always tired, but the flavour of its tiredness reflected its tenant. With Dorothy – a granny always ten years older than anyone guessed – it had been merely resting but most of the students’ Shacks had been hungover.
The newcomer was weeding the frontyard – a rare treat for the Shack. Her dark arms blurred with the mulch she was carefully spreading around the natives. Frequently her black hair got in her way and she’d brush it away. Drawing on experience, her dark arms and black hair suggested to me that she was Indian.
She looked up just as I was walking past and I had to stammer an embarrassed “hello”. Her face seemed to be just a breath away from smiling, with deep grooves running from her nose to the corners of her mouth. Her nose was broad and smooth the opposite of my “ski-jump” nose. She was aboriginal; I didn’t know what to say.
“Hi, I’m Sally,” she smiled, “caught you off guard then?”
“A little, I’ve never met an aboriginal before,” I admitted.
“There’s a first time for everything,” she smirked, “Best just not to think about it, you wouldn’t for anyone else, would you? So what’s your name?”
“Jason... I live at number nineteen.”
“I’ll have to drop by then,” she paused, as if unsure whether what she was about to do was a good idea, “wanna see a trick?”
She picked up a gumnut and rested it in her hands.
“Everyone knows that a gumnut won’t grow without fire, so the forest burns itself every few years. But I can show you how to trick a gumnut. Cover it with your hands and imagine it as what it is: an old fire sleeping. Hold it just right... and...” she opened her hands to reveal a little green shoot sticking out of the split gumnut.
“Very funny, bet the first gumnut’s up your sleeve.” I replied, playing sceptic.
“Is not,” she said with an exaggerated huff, “If you’re going to be that way, I won’t tell you how to do it. Bet you like maths and science, not believing your own eyes.”
“It was a nice trick, but you’re right. I’m going to do science next year.” I glanced at my watch, acting as if I hadn’t walked down the street just to spy on her, “Got to go, see you around.“
“Sure will, bye,” she waved, kneeled down and returned to her weeding.
I was drying up after we’d had Sally over for dinner. She’d had loads of stories about where she’d lived, people she knew and places she’d been. Sally had seen a lot more of Australia than I had.
“I thought she was very nice,” said Mum, clearing the table.
“Did I say she wasn’t?”replied Dad rinsing the plates for the dishwasher. Dad preferred honesty over political correctness. He believed that the Apology wouldn’t achieve anything and that progress wouldn’t occur until we were allowed to admit aboriginals had faults.
He continued, “she was a nice girl but I don’t she why her being an aboriginal means we have to give her dinner.“
“It was a welcome-to-the-neighbourhood dinner,” corrected Mum. She didn’t keep a strongly defended position on Indigenous Issues and was more concerned with whaling and capital punishment.
“You didn’t have the last tenants over for a welcome dinner,” Dad retorted, over the thunder of more hot water, “I just think its time they made a choice between modern society and “living on the land” — they can’t continue to have both.“
“Honey, we know your views but can you just drop it?”Mum groaned as she fell onto the couch, “We’ve had a nice dinner and now I just want to relax.“
“We’re not helping them by giving them all they ask for and not expecting anything back.“
“Yes dear, but neither will yelling at us.“
“I wasn’t yelling,” Dad replied tight, as the water gurgled away.
“Hi Jason, what are you doing here?”asked Sally opening her newly painted door.
“Just dropped by to give you this,” I replied, passing her the basket, “it’s my Mum’s Christmas treats basket’
“Thank you very much, why don’t you come in?’
I stood there unsure what to do. I opted for small talk: ‘The fudge has to be kept in the fridge or it melt.“
The Shack’s interior was very different from last time I’d seen it. It was bright, with only a thin curtain filtering the sun. The usual mess of takeaway boxes and lecture notes replaced with little bonsai trees. Not the standard oak and maple but gum trees. The other difference was their shape, all the bonsai I’d seen had been twisted and sculpted. These gums stood proud and straight in their little green and blue glazed terracotta dishes.
“You like them?”asked Sally as she returned from the kitchen, “I picked up the habit in Brisbane. They’ve nice but a lot of work, you want one?’
“They’re cool, but I’m horrible with plants,” I said sitting down on the couch opposite her, “So what have you been up to?’
“Not much, waiting for uni to start, like you. I’ve been helping the fires.“
“But the only fires so far have been down in Gippsland.“
“No I haven’t been going that far. I’m writing a story about bushfires,” her smile was outdone by the eagerness in her voice, “Its about some people who have a calling, a spiritual connection to the Earth. The Earth needs them because there’s so many people now, living in so many dangerous places. They’re called to help lessen the blow of natural disasters; nudge a cyclone to miss a city or smooth a massive earthquake into smaller adjustments.“
“And how do they do that?’
“Not sure, think they have to really feel the Earth’s stress. Make a connection by breaking a leg or burning a hand.“
“Okay...”I hesitated, “that’s a bit creepy. What are the characters like?’
“Don’t know, haven’t met them yet. But I think its a story about belonging. They can’t do anything if they don’t feel a connection to the land,” she paused, self-conscious, “well I’ve kept you here long enough. Sure you want to get back to your air-conditioned house.“
As she opened the door I smelt a whiff of smoke and saw ash in her hair. She paused and drew a lighter from her pocket, engraved with a very life-like kangaroo. “I got this up near Cape York, you seemed to really like my story about it so, I thought you might want this.“
She softly closed the door before I could reply.
I couldn’t sleep. It was too hot. It was the fifth night of the heatwave and I lay boiling in only my boxers. It was made worse by the smoke from the fires that were leaping closer and closer to Melbourne. Their smoke hung in the air and there was only the intermittent breeze from my window to comfort me.
Bored in the heat, I started to think about Sally’s story. She’d suggested that it was a result of a spiritual connection with the planet, and the Earth was reaching out to protect us. It didn’t seem right, why would the Earth care? Maybe it was the good old “next step of evolution‘. Yet another weapon in our war to overcome mother nature.
The story and the heat reminded me of the closest I’d come to a natural disaster. It had been hot like this at our house in the Dandenongs. There was a bushfire warning and our house was a textbook worst case scenario.
We were hiding in the bathroom, my hand throbbing from where an ember had burnt it. All I could do was pray and pretend to myself that pushing away the pain of the burn would repel the fire.
When Dad’s patience broke he returned in elated shock. The scorched grass testified to the fire’s path. It had swept up the hill, parted around the house and then merged. It was a miracle — we didn’t tell anyone.
With those thoughts I drifted, dreaming of burning hands and broken legs.
Dad must have been thinking of that summer too, when he announced we wouldn’t be celebrating New Year’s in the Dandenongs this year.
“We have to protect that house,” Mum demanded, jumping to her feet, “It has so many memories in it!’
“I didn’t have time this year to look after it, we can’t save it,” Dad murmured, reaching out to calm her.
Mum slapped his hand away, “We have to at least save what we can!’ Though she was a head shorter, she loomed over Dad.
“We’ll try, but I think there are road blocks.“
“But... it was our miracle...”Mum breathed, collapsing inside.
“I know, but the miracle wasn’t the house, it was us, remember?”Dad whispered hugging her, but he struck a nerve.
Mum broke free of Dad’s grip and almost shouted, “Remember? I remember a man so indecisive that the fire made his choice for him. You promised me we’d always have that house.“
“Sophie, please don’t do this,” Dad pleaded.
“I have to,” Mum said as she stormed out. We heard the car drive off.
“Its just a house,” Dad muttered and fell into a chair. The television went on but he wasn’t watching. I knew he wanted to be alone.
After hiding in my room for half an hour, my patience broke. I agreed with Mum, that house needed to be protected—it was were I’d grown up. Outside Dad’s office I knew telling him I was going wouldn’t help. I left a note in the kitchen.
The heat and the argument made the walk to the station almost unbearable. The plastic seats stuck, just as my thoughts were stuck looping between my parents and our miracle.
At Belgrave I realised how little a plan I had. I tried Mum’s phone, but it was off. I should’ve guessed. The house was much further that I could walk, part of the reason we’d moved. Unfazed, I started walking.
The smoke was worse here, closer to the fires. The heat seemed less though. After an eternity of walking I stumbled off the road into the trees. Quickly I lost the road and found a clearing.
Someone must have camped here, there was a fire circle and some wood. Curiously there were several shards of green glazed terracotta, maybe from a dish or a bowl.
I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was because no one was watching, Sally’s story or my parents fight. I placed the wood as I’d been taught. I still had the lighter from Sally in my pocket. The kangaroo stared at me, offering no guidance.
I hesitated and lit the fire. It was the opposite of a bushfire: small, tame, and smokeless. But I knew it would happily grow into a raging inferno.
Lighting a fire in the bush during a total fire ban is reckless but what I did next was nonsensical. I put my hand in the fire.
Did it burn?
I’m not sure.
[+/-] show/hide story