The Ash Line
My sister and I, in the back seat of the family car on the way to our theme park holiday up north. The sky is blue, the trees are black and the ground is white. Heat beats at the closed car windows like the breath of a furnace, but the air is mausoleum still. It is the first time I look destruction in the eyes. I never forget how it grins back. Still hungry.
A man takes a pile of guns into a sleepy town in Tasmania and opens fire. A monster with long white hair and dead eyes. I watch the news and discover another kind of fear to keep me awake at night. My country is divided by politics. Aren't they all? Politicians say and do things that encourage one person and enrage another, in equal measure. Government means grown men arguing in front of cameras, when they aren't cutting ribbons or opening hospitals. My father leaves the newspaper on the dining table. A headline and a short man in a suit. The padded ridges of a bullet proof vest beneath it, accentuated by raised arms before a crowd. A day when leaders - imperfect as they were - said 'Enough' for the good of us all and meant it. I feel safer in my skin. I don't know why, but I do.
I am 15 years old, on a dated metal school bus driving between Gunnedah and Tamworth in Northern NSW. The sky is the colour of a dead thing, and the sun, like the heart of a cut grapefruit. Nothing makes sense. The glass windows are hot to the touch and everything tastes like ash. I think of Revelation sermons, preached in church. A tapestry of the final chapter of all things. Poetry and judgement, braided artfully together in warning. I'm so angry. I'm still in school. I've never left home or traveled to far places or fallen in love or got a paycheck. What if I die wearing this hideous school uniform. I have barely begun to live and it feels like the end of the world. It's not, but it feels that way.
The day is bright and crisp and I'm leading Nada in from the paddock to go riding. The sky looks like a plumbago petal. The stockhorse's rust coat is dewy, and the grass greener than a shamrock in Dublin on St Patrick's Day. Remember this, I told myself. Remember all of it. I do. I have hair the colour a fire engine. It's tied in two plaits. I'm wearing a red and black flannelette shirt I stole from my dad. There are no clouds and the air is so sweet. It is perfect. One day it won't be like this. I say it like I know something I don't.
Two planes shatter the World Trade Centre. I am walking down a hallway and look up at the TV just as the second one hits. I see the moment the news anchors realise it's an attack, not an accident. News of more flights plowing into the ground begin to roll. Fire, death and videos on loop, scarring the mind and bones of the destination of my dreams. I cry over the death of people I will never know. It's my first year of university. My father tells me we have no choice but to sell the farm, and piece by piece I begin to feel my childhood end. I cast my first vote. The ballot paper is light in my hands as I let it go. Even now, I still think we are the good guys in every war, with every thing.
Night has fallen. The speeches are done, the people are fed, and our family has spilled on to the dance floor. My sister has married the man she loves and she looks like the most beautiful Christmas tree angel I have ever seen. We've picked up the hems of our red satin bridesmaid dresses and gone towards our tribe, who have already demanded the next song on the playlist. Play 'O, Mary'! and there is a brief cacophony of approval as we all start to kick off our shoes. Even my Nan joins in. Soozie Tyrell's fiddle skips and saunters out to the air where our family are waiting. The Boss's gravelly voice arrives to deliver a spiritual in Louisiana style with New Orleans flair. I throw my hands up at the stars. I do not feel beautiful as a rule. Ever. But tonight I do. I may even believe it for a moment. I close my eyes and dance. I sing loud, smiling as the familiar lyric passes my lips. God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water but fire next time. We are a family of song. We pick a harmony. Any harmony. The end of anything good feels like a lifetime away.
The weekend she dies, there's a flood. A gargantuan, muddy deluge that gouges mercilessly at the river bank. The north of our town has already gone under, swallowed by the Murrumbidgee. Sandbags line the business doors in the main street and the sound of rushing water is deafening. The iron sky cracks for no-one. All it does is weep. All day, all night. Like it knows. My grandmother is laying in a hospital ward, surrounded by her children, their children, their children's children and my grandfather who has no idea what to say. She wakes only to hush my weeks old niece back to sleep. They ask me to sing to her, my Nan, as she waits for what we all know now is coming. I don't know how my voice comes out but it does. The same way I don't know how the clouds haven't run out of rain. When she leaves us, it is not long after 11 in the morning. A gash forms overhead and sunlight begins to stream through the split, blazing. It's alright. I'm home. I know it's her doing, and I think of Jesus and the look on his face when Nan's first words to him were probably to ask if he wants tea or anything vacuumed. I will cry over this separation for a lifetime. She'll never be at my wedding or hold the children I don't have but might have, in her arms. But part of me laughs too. In the face of unbelief. This is not all there is. I feel it. An end. Not the end. Blue skies return. Tides recede. Our city blows a long breath out and the clean up begins. The levy does not break when we sing to her bones for the last time.
I think of Sydney. The city life I abandoned three years ago. I don't regret it. Even when the water comes for us again.
Another flood. Not the worst we've had but still. Abundant, ravaging. Desperate. People talk about the idea that water has memory. I think of the ones I've seen, washing over retaining walls, spilling wide over streets and plains. Testing the roots of trees older and stronger and wiser than we give them credit for. The floodwaters cover the ground not like a predator seeking an old haunt, but like hands. Hungry, carving and blind. They move as though they are making the best of a chance. As though they know something we don't. In the months after, I don't notice the greenness as it vanishes from the landscape. I'm too busy on my phone, But I do taste the bile on my tongue when the politicians fly overhead in their pristine country costumes. Canberra broils with ego and contempt in well cut suits. My vote is heavy in my pocket. Something someone died for me to have. I look out the window. Remember what my mother taught me. Love many, trust few.
My neighbour yells at me from across the street. She treats me like a daughter, which means I am both loved and ridiculed mercilessly for buying plants I can never keep alive in the heat. My dog and my family and my small handful of good friends, though - all of that still feels certain. One afternoon, I take the box of my own baby clothes that my mother has so beautifully preserved for me, and push them to the back of the top cupboard in my bedroom. I shut the door, throat thick. I miss the rain and the cool and a time when the things I wanted and things I needed, felt like they could co-exist in the same room in my head without belting each other. Somewhere a commissioner writes a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister. Talk to us. Danger is coming. But he already knows this. He does nothing. It will be horrific, and he will treat money as though it's a thing that will sustain you when you're starving. A false ambassador for faith that without deeds, is dead. Bitterness coils, poisonous in my gut. Grief. It is the day I decide it's maybe best if I never have children.
Winter. The ground is cold. But bone dry. I wake up at 2:00am and try not to think about things that aren't.
It's too early for this. Too early for the news reports to be dominated by news of each new blaze as it begins. Too hot and too soon for drone footage of burnt out scrub land, soot blackened faces and collapsed tin roofs. Twitter makes everything immediate and Facebook makes everything divisive. I need connection and I feel too connected all at once. I long for silence and grey skies and mountains. I long for earnest work to do with bare hands, and Spring like it used to be. A picture flicks up on my phone on the bus. Fire has begun climbing cliffs. I think of being a 12 year old on a back seat. It's still hungry.
It's December. I'm standing in a formal gown, waiting to sing carols in front of a couple thousand people and reading an article about how in some places, the birds have begun to fall dead from the trees. The only thing more relentless than the heat is the smoke. It sits daily, like a shroud over everything we know. The clothes in my cupboard have begun to smell. My bed. My everything. Everyone's everything. My friend in Canberra texts me a few days later to tell me about the smoke in her building. How it's inside the offices now and that it's hard to breathe there. We're officially the worst in the world for air quality, she says. Finally we're first at something. It would be funny if the burning zone wasn't bigger than Belgium.
It's still December. New Years Eve. The fireworks have been cancelled in town because fire in the sky seems like a pretty obnoxious way to ring in a new decade when the world is burning down, unless you're a harbour city where Prime Ministers live. A diamond ball drops in Putin's America. The London Eye bursts with colour, opposite a bridge that my friend crosses most every day and lately has seen too many tears and drawn knives. Paris glitters, too. Beautiful and so far away. I miss who I was there, enough that there's a sting under my ribs at the thought. All the lights are out in my house. Laying in bed, I can't see through the smoke to the end of my street. Only the lights. I pull the windows shut in my bedroom, on the first cool night in weeks. Wanting the kinder temperature on my skin. Not the ash of half a billion animals, human beings and three states on my tongue.
It's almost like we're on a war footing, my mum says, cradling my one and a bit year old niece, peach juice almost dry in her hair. They announce that Batlow is undefendable and the town will need to be abandoned. Some have chosen to stay. Not wanting to believe in the end. They are loved ones for people I know. The showgrounds and Equex Centre have been set up as makeshift animal sanctuaries. The decade is two days old. Drowning out the political posts and comments are offers of spare bedrooms and drop off locations. A river of community. Humanity. Kindness and hospitality enough to bursts its banks. I think of that night eight years ago - of my grandmother - and I'm reminded that sometimes the flood you're looking for isn't the one you get. They ask for lip balm. Hand sanitiser. Non perishable snack food. Gatorade. Face masks. Any face masks. Clothes. Shoes. Prayer, in the most meant sense of the word. Empty rooms fill quickly. My town has spoken in one voice tonight. What do you need. I have never been prouder. This is the country I know. The one I love. The one I fear, too.
Three days. CNN is reporting live from the tiny coastal town where I've spent most of my beach holidays. I tell my mum this in the car on the way home, not knowing what else to say. Not knowing that elsewhere on this abused ball of pain and controversy in space, a racist, misogynistic, criminal, likely-undiagnosed dementia patient has also possibly started World War III. I can't think about war. Sam plays under the sprinkler. My little fur kid, my only kid, who comprehends nothing but always cries when an ambulance passes. For almost three hours I've soaked the back yard so the ground is cool for her, but it's the air I'm worried about too. Not just the heat. I think of her lungs. The lungs of our people and our land. Of red skies; child refugees in smoke masks and boats, watching from open water as their towns burn down and their leaders fail them. I think of those who form the last line between us and a wall of flame more than 6000 kilometres long. I think of their courage, and every warning gone unheeded because of pride and cowardice.
Before I go put myself under a cold tap before bed, I watch one last video. The magpies have changed their call, it says. They warble to mimic the fire engines and emergency service vehicles, rushing into the jaws of catastrophe to save something greater than themselves. A song to mourn the end of what was. Somewhere flames are licking their first wall in another home. A garden full of trees with no lungs left to swallow these ghosts. We will never be the same.