These are the opening pages of Canticle Creek, a work in progress. The narrator is Possum, a fifteen-year-old girl, returning to her home after a bushfire.
It was mid afternoon on the second day before I could sneak out of the hospital. I flagged the minister down, persuaded him to take me back to Bluehouse, but there was a road block at the bottom of the hill and a stone-faced cop who wasn’t taking any nonsense.
“Crime scene, mate.”
“She lives up there,” the minister explained, nodding at me. He was a bland-faced fellow, red-haired, adam-appled. Kind enough. “Well – lived. At Bluehouse.”
“The artists’ place?”
He nodded. “She’s lost everything.”
The cop glanced at me, shifted his gaze, uncomfortable. I wasn’t the first survivor he’d had to turn away. His tone became a little more conciliatory.
“Still dangerous. Things crashing, burning. Search teams’ll be up there for weeks.”
The minister stepped out of the car. “I’m Ken Raymond – with the Uniting Church in Windmark. I can keep an eye on her.”
The cop took him aside, put a hand on his shoulder. I leaned towards the door, strained to listen.
“Look mate,” the cop tried – failed – to whisper. “You don’t want to take a kid up there. Some of the bodies – nothing left. Knuckle, a tooth, a skull.”
The minister reached for the cross around his neck, pressed a thumb against the beam. “We’re not searching for bodies – she just wants to look at her home. Maybe pick up a memento or two…”
The cop shook his head, and the minister was the type to take no for an answer.
I’m not. As soon as he dropped me back at Windmark, I borrowed a saddle from Jensen’s, liberated a horse from the back paddock – figured in the chaos nobody’d notice – rode to the bottom of the Ranges.
When the landscape changed from steamy yellow to smoky black the horse hesitated. So did I.
It was the silence appalled me most. Where were the wallabies? The birds? Even a friggin insect would be a relief.
Better to get it over with. I urged the horse on, watched the hooves sink into ash and charcoal. The rain had extinguished most of the open flame, but the stumps still glowed. From time to time I’d snap a branch and a shower of sparks would shoot forth. Smoke coiled away from the trees, slithered out of tuft and hollow. Little ash-clouds puffed up from our every step. Trees fell – mostly in the distance, with a doppler echo, but a couple close enough to make the horse jump. They’d be falling for weeks, months.
Fire like this, only thing to really put it out was winter.
The cop was right; I was crazy. But I had no choice.
The track took me close to the McGills’ and the Kefalas’ but I wasn’t hanging round to dwell upon the devastation.
The Starcevics’ gave me pause. Some magnetic force drew me in. Even the horse felt it. The horror. One amazing thing: a little Tibetan prayer flag, pasted against a steel post, unscathed.
Nothing else was.
I muttered a silent prayer to what I didn’t know – the wind, the sun – then turned the horse and cut across the blackened paddocks to my home.
Across the entrance, the yellow police ribbon that indicated that death had visited the dwelling.
I drew close to the house, stopped, stunned.
“Oh fuck,” I muttered.
It hadn’t just fallen in upon itself. It had imploded. That magnificent, rambling dwelling – my mud castle – with its secret passageways and epiphanies, its patina of memories, its shimmering works of art. Gone.
The iron roofs were like torn foil, the veranda stones cracked and shattered. The mud brick walls had crumbled into blackened piles. The workshop – and the part of the house closest to it – had simply disappeared. A trickle of frozen silver that might have been an engine block ran out from a mess of twisted metal.
I dismounted, approached warily. Hesitated, then put a foot forward: my right leg was giving me hell, but I hadn’t come all this way to just stand there. I rustled around the debris on the east side of the house, pulled a sheet of iron aside. Burnt my fingers, whipped them away, blew on them.
My god, the intensity of the destruction. Nothing had survived. Not intact, anyway. I came across a few shards of pottery: was that a Japanese pattern under the black? Lucy’d love that. Her father’s paintings were gone. She wouldn’t love that.
Ghosts objects loomed out of the slush: what might have been a lamp stand, a jaffle iron, the piano’s broken teeth and twisted strings.
Even the massive redgum roof beams and centre poles: obliterated. How much energy did it take to incinerate such things? I’d gazed up at them all my life; knew every pattern in the grain, had woven stories out of them. They’d always seemed to be the epitome of permanence, much more so than any of the humans I’d known.
And then I spotted it, lying on a sheet of flat steel. A tiny piece of pottery, no bigger than my thumb: a boy in a loin cloth perched on a water buffalo.
I picked it up.
I hadn’t shed a tear during the entire disaster, but that little memento of god knows what – Snow had never even been to Asia – was the final straw. It was the only thing she brought with her when she came to Bluehouse.
My mouth grew taut. A tear trickled from the corner of an eye.
I walked away from the house, my steps as heavy as mud. I was wasting my bloody time here, scratching around the wreckage, searching for — what? A knuckle, a tooth, a skull? What was the point? The boy and his buffalo were a more meaningful memento of Snow than any charred bone would ever be.
I climbed aboard, rode up to the little rocky outcrop we call The Eagle’s Nest.
I dismounted, settled into the chair-shaped hollow, gazed out over the fire-blasted scene: the bald, black gullies and broken stands of manna gum, the smouldering valley, the incinerated paddocks on the outskirts of Windmark. The ash everywhere, like blue snow.
“Blue snow,” I said out loud.
The phrase resonated in my head. Those two little words captured the essence of this terrible event. They were its alpha and omega. It started with a woman called Blue and it ended with one named Snow.
Adrian Hyland is the award-winning author of Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road. He lives in St Andrews, north-east of Melbourne, and teaches at LaTrobe University. His novels have been translated into German and were published by Suhrkamp as Outback Bastard and Kaltes Feuer.
Adrian Hyland ist selbst Feuerwehrmann, war bei den Buschfeuern im Dauereinsatz. Auch vom Black Saturday, der Brandkatastrophe von 2009 mit 187 Toten, war er persönlich betroffen. Verarbeitete das in dem nervenzerfetzenden, tiefschürfenden Sachbuch Kinglake-350. Nebenan in dieser Ausgabe gibt er Auskunft dazu.
Er lebte rund zehn Jahre im Outback der Northern Territories. Anfangs ging er Gelegenheitsjobs nach, später war er Koordinator einer Versorgungsstation und lebte in den Gemeinschaften der Warlpiri–, Alyawarre– und Warumungu. Seine Serienheldin und Protagonistin Emily Tempest ist Tochter eines Weißen und einer Aborigine. Sie kehrt nach Schule, Studium und längeren Reisen rund um die Welt in ihre alte Heimat nach Moonlight Downs zurück. Dort sieht sie sich mit den Problemen von Kriminalität, Alkohol und Gewalt der Bewohner konfrontiert. Die beiden Romane stammen von 2006 und 2010, brachten höchstes Lob. Heute aber wäre solch ein Buch, von einem whitefeller geschrieben, politisch nicht mehr korrekt. Der neue Kriminalroman von Adrian Hyland – Textauszug exklusiv hier bei uns – wird keine solche Heldin haben.