Portrait of a Firebug

A short story by
Dr Bob Rich

    It's a monster!

    The north wind blows half a gale, it's a searing breath straight from the mouth of hell. It blasts a swirling, wriggling, climbing curtain of black smoke up to the top of the sky. There is still lots of blue to the left and the right, but the middle half of the view belongs to the fire. The curtain of smoke rises. The theater is about to start, and I'm the audience. Hey that's good! I chuckle at the thought. Pity I won't ever be able to share it with anyone else.

    You know the deep red color of steel when it starts to glow? Shadows just that color dance at the base of the wide column of smoke as it savagely thrusts up, up in vertical wrinkles and waves. Mount Hodell is almost glowing with a corona, it's like the sun at an eclipse. I wait for sunrise, and there it is! Suddenly Hodell is a jagged semicircle of blinding yellow and red. It's not much of a mountain, no, but it's thickly covered with gumtrees. And what's a gumtree? A gumtree is a giant match stuck into the ground, that's what. Well, all those bloody matches are burning now, a birthday cake with ten thousand candles on it. Happy birthday, dear Cecil, happy birthday to you!

    Not that any of those snooty bastards down there in Hartleford will be thinking about Cecil. Not that they ever do, except to laugh. At the moment, they're too busy being scared, shitting their pants! The town is right in the path of the fire. Please God, there'll be roast bitches by tonight, and fried football freaks and charcoal grilled treefallers who look down on a bloke simply because they're tall enough to look down on him. As if it was my fault that I've got short legs.

    And that bastard George, saying ‘Cecil, what a poofy name!' Good people, famous people, powerful people have been called Cecil, and can I help it if it's a family name? Bloody George Higgerty, rolling in dough, ‘my mother the Shire President', thinks he is so cool, the big football star. Well, I hope Georgie-boy's grossly overused prick will burn off!

    The fiery crown on the brow of Mount Hodell is now towering into the sky. Jeez, those flames must be twice, two and half times, the height of the mountain itself. And it has spread side to side in the few minutes I've been up here on the top of Mount Garnet. It's a great mouth of power, a snake's mouth, a crocodile's mouth, and it's gaping to swallow Hartleford.

    I feel like a God. I lit that fire with just one match.

    It was all planned anyway, but did I ever feel good when I heard the weather forecast for today! "TOMORROW WILL BE A DAY OF TOTAL FIREBAN." A terrific birthday present, that's what.

    So I was away at first light, before Mom had a chance to start to whine at me. I had it all planned out, just the right spot, and it's wonderful what a little petrol can do on a day of total fireban. Then it was back onto the Kawasaki, and I roared along all the well-known roads to the best lookout in the area, Mount Garnet. It's to the south of the town. From here I can see the red tile roofs, and the shiny metal roofs, and the gray snake of the highway. I can't see the people, no, but at least I can imagine them.

    I hope that beautiful, blonde, arrogant Jane Oban is standing outside the dental surgery where she works. I hope she's riveted to the ground by terror and is unable to look away from the destruction coming from the north. I hope that sexy face of hers will get burnt and scarred, then she'll know what it's like to be called ugly! If I live to be a thousand years old, I'll never forget the magnificent epic of that great literary genius, Jane Oban:

    Wonderful humor, isn't it? Laugh everybody! How many times have I had it thrown at me? Well, burn you bastards! Burn, bloody Jane!

    The fire is still a good six miles away, and well below me here on Mount Garnet, but already burning rubbish is landing all around. I can hear the odd knock on top of the helmet, and keep brushing things off my shoulders. I don't want the leathers damaged. Cinders, curled-up skeletons of gumleaves, glowing twigs rain down, there is a snow of grey ash, but I'm safe enough on the short, lush green aftergrowth. They baled hay up here a month ago, and now stupid sheep placidly graze over there to the right. They look like fat maggots from the distance. I wonder if fleece burns. Might get some barbecued mutton on the hoof?

    Of course, the slopes below me are covered in forest. They'll go any sec, then I'll piss off. Oh, it won't burn here, but I know that the smoke'd get me. The Kawasaki is facing south, leaning on her side-stand and is quietly burbling away to herself. The road down from here is on the southern slope. I'm not stupid, I just look it.

    Maybe I should go now, roar into Harlteford and watch their terrified faces. I can make a great show of being helpful. But no, bugger them. I could pull a maiden from the lips of hell, and she'd still laugh at my ugly face.

    Something lands almost at my feet. It's the palm-like tip of a branch, the size of my head. All the leaves are gone, but the half-dozen twig-ends are glowing red, and yellow flames rise, futilely questing for fuel. Shit, I don't want something like that to fall on the Kawasaki, it'd damage the vinyl.

    But it's hard to leave the view. The firefront has spread to both sides, and the smoke over Mount Hodell is now spinning, it's become a monstrous black twister, a fire-fed giant with its waist a thick rope on a level with my eyes, and Medusa-hair up high, up twice as high. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I can hear its roar like distant surf. It's given birth too: far and wide on both sides, there are new columns of angrily rising smoke, new spots of red and yellow spreading into fans of destruction.

    Beautiful.

    I hope it burns the whole fucking world.

    I hope it burns the Post Office, old Roger's pride and joy. A cliche for every occasion is my honored boss Roger. I could recite them all, if they didn't make me want to chuck. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.' is the favorite, and the old idiot trots it out each time with a triumphant smile like he'd just thought of it as a fresh and original insight. And when he rabbits on about punctuality, I'd just like to kick his sagging gut. Maybe after today, I won't have to put up with the old bastard, day after day after day.

    But now smoke closes off the view as the slopes of Garnet catch fire below me. I can no longer see the beautiful burning vista, and I start to cough. It's time to go. It's more than time to go. Oh bugger, I may have left it too late!

    The Kawasaki roars along the dirt track. I know the way well, I've been along this road hundreds of times, but somehow everything is strange, everything looks different. The high beam is thrown back into my face by the choking smoke, so I flick down to low again, and descend the curvy path in third gear.

    Over to the left, the tips of a high branch suddenly flare in an explosion of flame, and burning rain falls beneath. I'm past it almost instantly. It's terrifying, but it's a good fear, an exhilaration like riding too fast or climbing up the overhang of a rock face. I'm almost pissing my pants, but also I'm enjoying myself. I feel great, I'm alive maybe for the first time in my miserable life, and if my fire kills me, it'll have been worth it.

    Desperately, I speed up, around the remembered curves. Here's the straight stretch, and I click up into top gear and let her rip. Brake just before the curve, lean right, and my eyes are seared by a new view. Fifty yards to my right, a mature eucalypt is ablaze, from low bark to high leaves. I'm past it in the blinking of an eye, but terror has slowed time, and I've seen every detail. This tree is a monstrous flower of red and yellow. The roaring of its death drowns out all thought, even over the noise of the Kawasaki. It sucks air towards itself, then throws it up to the sky laden with burning leaves and branches, seeds of further destruction. I can actually feel myself being sucked to the right towards the tree, towards death. I fight it, open up the throttle, and skid around the next left turn, pivoting on my foot.

    The swirling smoke clears away for a second, and I can see a long way. There are no major hot spots in view. Good. I'll get out yet. Then I'm back in the murk, and around the next bend.

    Down, down, down. Here's the hair-pin bend to the left. I have maybe another four hundred yards of forest to go before the Higgerty farm. I hear a huge crash, even over the engine's roar, and a blazing branch the size of a tree has plummeted to the ground somewhere to my left. Its trail down is marked by ascending fire. I skid around the next curve, fishtailing on the gravel, and three high spots of red light shine through the smoke.

    And there's something dark and fast bounding towards me from under the nearest one. It's as if time had stopped. I can see the wallaby in mid-bound. Yellow flames rise from a branch hooked on its back, streaming behind it, parallel with the extended tail. Its mouth is open in agony. I can see its great liquid eyes looming closer, closer, then feel the jar as it crashes into the handlebar.

    I'm flying sideways through the air. My helmet hits a whippy thing like a branch, then I crash into something hard, something unmovable. I feel my left upper arm snap.

    No. NO! I was wrong, it's not worth it. Nothing could be worth it. Oh God, it's not fair! I don't want to die!

    Every movement, even every breath is agony. The throbbing pain of my left arm is the focus of my being, and oh God, the smoke's making me cough, even down here on the ground...

    I must have passed out from the pain. I open my eyes, and through the heat-wrinkled visor, through the smoke, I look up at the flaring yellow and red foliage of the tree above me.

    It's not fair. I haven't lived until today. And now I must die.

***

HARTLEFORD HERALD
OBITUARY

Only one person died in the terrible bushfire that started on Saturday the 27th of February, the hottest day this Summer, but one lost life is too many. The town mourns the tragic death of young Cecil Tripp.

    Everyone knew Cecil the postman. He was a quiet young man, who preferred the company of his beloved 1000 cc Kawasaki to that of other people.

    His boss, Postmaster Roger Gallwyn paid tribute to the reliability and sober seriousness of this fine young man. "Australia Post taught Cec to ride a motorcycle," Roger said. "Within a month of starting work, he had put a deposit on a 250 cc Yamaha, and riding has been his passion ever since. In every way, he was an exemplary employee. He was an intelligent young man who did his job conscientiously and well in all weathers. Letters never went astray or got mis-sorted when Cec was on the job. I will miss his quiet presence."

   His mother, Mrs Grace Tripp, tearfully explained that Saturday the 27th had been Cecil's 24th birthday. She had organized a surprise party for him — but then the fire had struck. "I hope whoever lit that fire will roast in Hell!" she said.

Copyright Dr R. Rich, 1999

Home to Bob's writing  Bob's book reviews  Book editing service  LiFE Award: Literature For Environment