My Harsh and Rugged Land
By Albert Megraw
I sit here in a day dream gazing out across this land that is so peaceful and quiet. Looking down from my high rocky vintage place the once deep mud basin below me is just a dry deep empty scuff in the rugged landscape, here in the winter and spring months it is transferred into a massive blue lake, where millions of birds arrive to catch the fish that just appear and move around the lake as a dark shadow. Tall green reeds with fluffy white tops grow at the lakes edge their growth so prolific that they clutch or rub shoulders with those closes by; their thick wall keeps the moving dust and sand from reaching the clear water of the lake.
But all is quiet now; the cool early moving air stirs the earth that has turned to dust through the drought causing it to bellow into the air as like moving dark clouds in the sky on a rainy day. My attention wonders, seeing myself swimming here, not so very long ago and the laughter that rang out with the playful antics with my friend J. whilst still reminiscing about those good times, my attention wonders to the far horizon and come forward with such a startled jump that pulls me out of my daydreaming.
‘Smoke, is that smoke, it is?’ The wonder expressed in the sound of my words comes to my ears….
In a dreaded state of mind, I take off on the run across the top of the rock and then have to scrambling down the rock face to my horse that grazes on what he can find to eat below me. Grazing my shins in my stupid hast. I scrabble onto his back cursing the hurt of my shins, looking down at them I see the bright red blood flowing freely down my legs, the stinging blocking out all other thoughts.
My horse knows this land better than me so let him choose his own way giving him his head whilst removing my bandana from my neck and the canteen from my hip, I douse the soft cloth with water and place it on my blooded shin first one, and then the other, the cool water takes away the stinging, allows me to think a little clearer.
‘That smoke is due west, that’s the Mitchell’s place, well over 20 miles away, Christ if I can see the smoke from where I am, the bush fire must be huge.’
My heart starts its rapid thumping and these weird feeling starts their churn around in my stomach. I remember the last fire that swept this land a long time ago, and I must admit I was sure scared at that time, the flames rushed around eating everything, like a herd of savage hungry beasts. On reach the house my body glides to the ground my feet hitting the earth at full run whist my horse is still at a full gallop.
The front door fly’s back with the power of my forward motion and crashes back against the wall with a loud thud.
‘Dad, Dad, are you here’ the shouted words move through the rooms, jumping from one to another, but nothing moves, no sounds other than my constantly shouted words in my terror and panic state to reach my dad. Getting no reply, I turn on my heels; my heart is racing even faster now. I am beginning to go out of my mind. My thoughts jump around all out of my control. Racing from the house I hear the striking of a hammer on steel coming from dad’s workshop in the barn.
Shouting louder to overcome the striking clang of the hammer hitting the anvil…‘Dad, come quickly… Now’ I repeat with such a note of alarm that he comes running to the door.
‘There is a lot of smoke in the direction of the Mitchell’s place; I would say it’s a big fire. I see the dread in the vacant gaze he gives me in his blue eyes. He turns and throws his words at me over his shoulder… “Get the hands; they are in the first paddock”.
I’m off before hearing the last of his uttered words. My horse has followed me from the houses to the barn and now nibbles my ear as though to say hay relax, take a breath, get yourself under control, and I immediately feel calmer knowing he is here. He is off before my butt is in the saddle, jumping forward while I travel through the air and come down smoothly into the leather. He heads for the closed gates to the yard at a gallop…aghast I think… ‘ he is going to jump it,’ not a usual practice for him and I feel the apprehension over coming my other worries, we have never jumped anything this high before. He feels my concern, the urgency and so chances himself against this barrier. His bunched sinew and muscles are felt beneath me and I close my eyes as we meet the gate and he is off from the ground flying into the air and the feeling exhilarants me and then he lands, not a great landing, but he’s off running without the slightest hesitation.
I become aware that I have been guiding his jump and had assisted him the best one can and we had made it. Dad will never believe this when I tell him. I see our hired hands working in the distance paddock they know something is up and come to meet me. One never rides fast in the outback unless something is wrong and so met me as I turn my horse and head for home once more as they bunch around me. Shouting to them… “There’s a fire on the Mitchell’s property, I saw the smoke about half an hour ago.” On reaching the yard gate, I jump down to open it and Jim throws at me…
“Why in your haste did you stop and close it?”
“Boy jumped over it, he was impatient” I laugh to him.
“Your joking” he says, new respect in his eye for my horse.
“Never thought he could jump that high” he mutters to the other hands close by.
Dad has piled all the firefighting gear we have into our big old water truck.
“You guys take the 4X4 and get out there as fast as you can; we’re come with the truck he calls to his hands.
“I’ll take Boy I call to dad it will be faster and less a hassle for me, I can’t stand the bumps and rattles in that old truck.” He takes off in a cloud of dust and I move off to the house for my cap and another water bottle. I catch him up to him in no time and pass him by and send a wave of my hand as I leave the truck throwing up a dust cloud behind me.
An hour passes and I see how black the sky is with the smoke and flying ash and I feel the old stirring in my stomach. ‘Thank god there is not much wind or we would have met this fire hours ago.’ I say to my horse and give him a pat on his neck. His ear’s flick and he shakes his head as though answering me, which I sure he does with these antics. The smell the smoke is heavy in the air now and soon I see how long the front of the fire is. It shocks me the ferocity of the flames, and the noise it creates frightens me. I see my Nabors, our hired hands and all those people within a 100-miles radius, as they try all they can to hold the fire in check. I jump from the horse and tell him to stay as I race to the fire line, but he would never let me out of his sight and follows, but keeps his distance for he fears those flames just as much as I do.
I fought this raving maniac that was lashing out at me, burning the spruce hairs on my face, sucking the moisture from my body and blowing his acid smoke into my eyes and lungs. I fought blindly; not knowing what he would do next. He is powerful, angry and driving himself forward likes a raging bull never wanting to stop. We shot water at him and he laughed at our silly attempts to stop him. His heat evaporated the eucalyptus oil from the trees, which exploded meters away from him causing him to jump and move faster and faster. We scrambled and ran away from him, knowing he is too big for us to control. We have been defeated and like weary soldiers seeing the battle lost, creep, or run from the battlefield. He laughed at us and sung his victory song with crackles and explosions as he ate his way across our beautiful land. His smoke and acid fumes cloaked the land and reached into the skies blackening out our mother sun, and sending millions of black ash flakes, racing across the landscape.
My body is weary, hurt, burnt, and sore with a raging thirst ride walked home in defeat. We watched her gobble up our trees, danced around our grass and then she moved on, leaving just black charcoal stumps, grey and silver ash and a dead quietness behind her. I cry, my horse, my friend my companion, burnt, blistered and hurt. He fought with me; never leaving my side, always there should I need him to speed me away to safety should I have chosen to leave. Patch my red kelpie dog who’s head is always held high, proud of his heritage and blood line walks at our side, head low, eyes cast downwards, burnt patches of hair where the angry fire had spat at him and driven him back, away from the man friend who lay there trapped, he feels he let this man down and couldn’t drag him away before the flames danced and gobbled him up. We return home with bowed heads this band of men; boys, women and our animal friends. We cannot count the loss of cattle, sheep our missing Nabors our grass which has taken years to appear and spread across our land. Tomorrow we must return to the angry driving fire and yes maybe this time we will win or he will take everything we have away from us.
I sink to the floor of my room and curl into a ball and fall into a fitful and restless sleep. I dream of a great friend and my heart race, we meet and life is perfect for a short space of time, and then I’m awake and we have to move again.
Still dressed in my burnt rugged clothing my body is driven of its own accord from the house to the water trough where my body is doused in the cool clean water to awake myself fully, rather than to clean the soot and dirt from my body. ‘I guess we are next’ I think to myself as I see him coming our way a wall or flame and smoke. Dad drives his tractor to plough up the land around the house and the hands are burning a fire back breaker, to save the house, animals and sheds. We pull everything we have into this small tight piece of land our home. We know it is win against this fire or loose everything, our house, our possessions’, the land, for he have no means to keep her once all we have is gone.
We face him, defiant in his might and power over us and though we are afraid we will stand our ground and fight another day. He throws burning lances of burning bark at us to penetrate our shield and we strike them down throwing our precious water over them, making the land a sodden muddy marsh, where we slide and fall as often as we are standing. We hold our ground and our strength builds in our small victories, he cannot come any further, and we sigh a great relief, we don’t cheer we know others have to fight as we do as it passes us by, as it moves onto the next dry patch of land as it gobbles up what is there to keep it moving on. He drives forward in his gorging appetite to consume all in his path. The wind changes direction and picks up. Now the small victories we had are dashed to the dusty earth, our greatest fear is the wind, which can drive him faster than we can drive a car across this land and his front will spread even wider.
We are on the move forward once again, this time to get ahead of him and try yet again to create a back burnt area so he will never be able to more forward and so have less food to feed his power then we will strike with every ounce of our power and dash him to the ground, beating him, until he cannot more forward and smile while he dies, then we will douse him with water so he will never ride the land again. I may be vicious here with these words but we will have no regrets, this I can assure you. We come to the valley our beautiful valley where the trees have stood since before time began. Red are their trunks and straight and they reach for the skies, which caresses them in her clouds. I get angry, I know he wants to turn this into a dust bowl and blackened stumps and I raise my voice and shout to him, ‘Take our house, my caps which are my prize possessions, my everything but please leave the valley, please’ I feel the air stir as though a great struggle is taking place between the wind and the land, the wind swirled and dances in many directions, twisters cause leaves and dust to fly and dance into the air, the fire rages with greater ferocity, and then the wind changes direction and blows the fire in upon itself. We rush forward now, for we sense another small win. We pounce upon him and drive him into the dust which flies into the air as we hit out, smashing every little flicker of his blood. He dies slowly ever trying to break out again but he is smashed and drowned in water and dust and we move forward now confident, we call others to come, those who are away, waiting for him to come to them, they come running, singing, the black man our friends they come too and we march forward leaving the land green behind us where we have won. We don’t stop for days, this is our chance, and we will never get another. Our friends in the stations far ahead of the fire come to us too; this is their chance to save what they have by saving what we have left. We grow in numbers and so does our strength. At last the night skies are black and there is no more red glows from the fires and so we stop the pounding and the hate and sit and gasp in the good clean air which we have not breathed in for days, the acid smoke is still there and yet it is good to know tomorrow the skies will shine for us and the black smoke clouds will be gone. The ash is everywhere, silver grey; black, brown and a thousand shade of charcoal. My arms jump up, down, I can’t stop them doing that and yet, I don’t consciously make them carry out this action. I try to stand and fall, to my knees my legs buckle under me and my horse comes to my side and his great rubbery lips nibble at my face, making me reach out blindly for his bridle, he lifts his head to pull me bodily up onto my feet but there is no strength in this body and my arms still try to douse the flames that my eyes see before me. I feel a hand on my shoulder and I thinks he’s got me and lash out to douse him some more. I hear this voice calling my name and I listen through the smoke inside, and the haze that is seen before me.
“Is that you dad, where are you?” I somehow know it’s him even though not seen through my eyelids which are burnt, swollen, and dry, my throat is sore from coughing and sounds made are croaks more than the sounds of a human tongue. I start to cry inside, I don’t know why, I’m all uptight, frustrated that so much has gone and my valley did it go up in flames, I just don’t know anymore, I am so tired. My flesh is hot, stinging patches scream in a dozen places all at once. My shoe is gone from my foot, not feeling it there anymore. I cry openly now, it feels good to let this pent up hate and frustrations flow out from me. I feel these arms engulf me, they are comforting and the words are soft and gentle. I try to hold him in return to feel him in my embrace but these damn arms get in the way, all they want to do is hit out and splatter things. The hate swells up again and I get angry and shout out…
“I will beat you, I may die but I will beat you”. I hear the words through the hazy.
“Hush, we won, yes we won” It says…“We can go home now.”
“Go home” I say… where is that, do we have a house, and is my bed ok?” Damn, I think… ‘Why ask about my bed’ stupid me.
“Did we save the valley tell me we did” and I cry openly, unashamed that others listen close by.
“Yes your valley is safe” he say’s;
“I guess someone was protecting it for you.” A hand ruffles my head and I feel the first drops of water on my face…
“Is that rain, is it?” I raise my voice as I seem to slip into the haze inside me.
“Yes, it is rain” I hear through the fog inside.
“Come on lets take you home.” I feel myself being lifted up and the tears still run down my face and the rage starts to settle inside me. “Where’s J?” I ask the voice outside of me that makes his noises. “I’m here say’s another voice” and I feel a hand on my face, it’s cool and I know it is J. “Hay J, we won, our valley is OK; thank the spirits for me will you. I will dance with you when I can and send them the praise they deserve.” My aboriginal friends words sneak through my inner carnage…..
“Saving the valley Al is the greatest gift you could ever give them.” he says, and the hand is gone, and I feel warmth inside where there was cold hatred before.
“Dad are you there dad” I call. “Yes son.”
“Dad, I am so tired, can I sleep in tomorrow morning and miss my chores.” I hear the laughter and relief in the voice yet I can’t understand why he should be relieved.
“You sure can, providing you make breakfast.” He says.
‘What a funny answer’ are my thoughts. I always make breakfast for everyone, never mind I think and drift off to the rhythm of floating on air yet feel someone carrying me. I feel a wet thing on my face and hands but it’s too blurry to take much notice of it and some stickiness on my eyes, my eyes I had to remember something about them what the heck was it. God I missed the internet meeting with Jill, Gee I wanted so much to talk with her, having missed her a lot over the last two days. God I love that person, I wish she were here with me know and I drift off again. I feel the coldness of the time between the night and the dawn time approaching and I wake up from a troubled sleep. Awakening everyday at this time of the day, going to my window and watch the sky, seeing the shining stars in their trillions, smiling I watch for the sky to lighten and the stars start to disappear. Mother sun is fighting to come to life and bring her warmth to the land. At last she comes, a slashing of light that makes me blink and then the light races across the land slashing and driving the darkness away as though attacking the darkness as if it were her enemy. The sight always makes me catch my breath knowing I can yet live another day. I return to my bed, for today I sleep in, I am a sure Dad said I could. Only vaguely remembering Dad saying something like that, and return to my bed and slide back into sleeping once again, only this time peacefully with a contented smile on my face, the sound of the rain sneaks through my window allowing the land to heal its wounds and quench its thirst.