Jessica Obersby was part of Inner Gippsland WGRO in 2018. When that program ended, Jess became volunteer facilitator for the Moe Writeability writers group which continued on. She won a 2019 Writeability Fellowship and recently joined Writers Victoria as our Online Learning Administrator. Her story explores a confronting rural theme: the aftermath of bushfire.
There is no going back. There is only now. This moment, that stretches into a day, which stretches into a week, and then another. But somehow, it stays this moment. The moment when I stand alone in the middle of the blackened space and scream.
Everything is dust. Grey ash blankets the ground, deadening my footfalls as I wander aimlessly. Or maybe I’m not really here, maybe I’m not really making any sound at all. I don’t feel like I’m here. None of this feels real. Yesterday… or was it Friday… or maybe last week… things were fine. Whole. Now they’re not whole. Neither am I. The wind cuts through the spaces in me as it writhes through the gaps in the bricks of the half-collapsed chimney – like a figure stooped, brought to its knees by the flames.
I walk the length of the property, searching. I don’t know what for. Everything and nothing. Something. The fences are burnt but I don’t need them to tell me where my space begins and ends. I knew every part of this ten acres – what was growing, if it was in bloom, what it smelled like when you crushed its leaves between your fingers, how it shone when the afternoon light caressed its form.
I knew all the sounds of the dawn chorus, kookaburras first with their gravelly chortling, then the magpies with their beautiful warbling, and then the chirps of smaller birds would join them, blackbirds, wrens, finches and thrushes. The parrots were the last, singing out like chimes and bells as the sun breached the horizon. I knew their favourite plants and flowers, whether they foraged in the leaf litter for fat, black beetles, or sat like a sentinel on a fence post waiting for an unsuspecting skink. I knew all of this. I knew… I knew…
‘I think this is the best spot for the big flight aviary. It’ll have deep shade in the afternoon from those trees there,’ Abbey points to the stand of white Manna gums. ‘Good for summer,’ she adds.
I peer over her shoulder at the rough map she’s drawn of the property, with markings all over to show shade versus full-sun areas. ‘You’re right.’
‘I know,’ she looks up at me with blue eyes that mirror the sky, and laughs.
‘Thanks for helping with this. I know you don’t like birds.’
‘I like them at a distance. Just not close up – they scare me. I don’t know why you want to do raptors.’
‘I told you, there’s not enough carers–’
‘I know it’s important, I’m just teasing!’ she slides her hand around me to pinch my bottom.
Now I laugh. ‘Okay.’
Abbey grabs my hand and pulls me towards the house. ‘Let me show you what I thought we could do with the extension on the laundry, to make space for birds inside.’
I watch the light fold into the curls of her hair, outline her nose, her lips. When she finishes talking, I kiss her. I drink her in. She smells of lavender soap and peppermint Tic Tacs and love. How did I get so lucky?
At the community hall they’ve set up a relief centre. Stupid name. It doesn’t bring any relief. All it does is make everyone feel worse, reminding them what they’ve lost. All the clothing, household stuff, a slap in the face with a garish, hot-pink spatula or egg whisk. I see shapes of people, there’s snatches of voices I know, but I can’t focus. I can’t look at people and try to smile, talk, commiserate.
I don’t even know why I came. I don’t want to talk to anyone, and my car is crammed full of pellets, browse and water, so I can’t get any supplies. The air in here is thick with grief. I stumble, weighed down by it. I can feel their pain, these people, my people, who’ve lost everything. Feel it like a blade in my gut. And it’s too much. So I leave.
At the edge of the rubble is a charred window frame, fragments of glass still clinging to it like bright, sharp limpets to a ship’s hull. There’s silence, no bird sounds, no cicadas, nothing. I step on the glass to hear it crack, just to make sound. To make sound exist in this place again. Calmer, I refill the feeder with pellets and prop the eucalypt branches in the ring at the side. I clean and refill the watering station. Then I drive out to several others to do the same. It’s all I can do for wildlife now.
Hours later, my brother grunts in welcome, gives a curt nod, as I come in the creaky back door. I nod back, and continue down the hall to his spare room. Never have I been so grateful for his silence. I fall into bed, exhausted.
There is no going back. There is only now. People tell me there is a future, things will change, get better. Right now, that seems impossible. There’s government pamphlets, crisp and shiny, about living through a bushfire. But I’m not living, I’m dying, slowly. With every breath of ash-filled air I am becoming this place. I am black on the inside.
I see black everywhere, wood, bark, leaves, feathers. Movement. A ruffle of feathers over to my right. Crows. No, currawongs. They push their beaks through the soil, tilling it, ferreting out insects. One of them senses me watching and stops. Fixes me with a bright golden eye, head tilted, sizing me up.
‘I know you. You ate all my grapes last summer just before they were ripe.’
The currawong’s eyes look to the remnants of the trellis that held the grapevine, then back to me. Coincidence, but it makes me smile.
There’s a burst of motion and I flick my head to the left. A kookaburra dives onto a skink, snatches it up, then throws back its head and swallows. It flies back up to its perch on a low branch of a charred swamp gum. Three of them balance side by side, mum, dad and baby. The family I watched as the chick fledged and learned and began to live as a bird. They survived. They came back. As my eyes travel up the tree I notice fresh, emerald eruptions, epicormic growth dotting the trunk as the tree regenerates. And I realise this is the future. The future is now.