From beneath the charred black soil, green shoots had begun to burst through. The fire had not broken them, it had given them life, a new start. Tom recognised the snow peas flowering and small tomato bushes taking over what used to be his garden patch. He smiled, knowing the birds would have a field day. It would be good to hear their chatter in the still valley again. What everyone forgot, he mused, was that the animals suffered too. Apart from that koala survivor on the news, there had been so few of them survive.
The day was as vivid in his mind as if it had been yesterday and not two years on. One eye had been warily watching the valley since morning as the horizons darkened with distant smoke. A simple phone call to a local SES member had given him the final drive to move along. The car had been already packed, wife and baby strapped in, before he took off. Everywhere they turned, roads were blocked. They were about to return down the same roads when the radio announced their valley had gone up. White faced, his wife was thin lipped and trembling beside him, and he had no words or time to comfort her.
They came across a pub, filled with other escapees. There was nowhere to go. Tacitly, the two of them agreed to stay. They parked near enough to protect the car, but far enough to avoid injury if it exploded. His wife settled in with the baby, and had her giggling playing with an old abacus. Tom joined able bodied men on the roof, wetting down the walls and roof until it was sodden. Old shirts became masks as they fought to breathe through the ash. The roaring intensified and the heat seared the flesh like an oven. It started to cross the oval at a nearby school, and the men scurried down under the showering embers. Inside, they gathered under the strongest part of the roof. Men were armed with water, aiming to wet the walls for as long as the pump lasted. His baby cried hard, coughing, spluttering, as his wife tried to stop her crying and protect her from the poisonous inhalations. The walls began steaming, and many cried out. The undercurrent of hurried prayers could almost be heard thrilling beneath the angry hissing of the walls.
It began to quieten, and looks of hope had begun appearing in the group. A shrill scream sounded, and Tom turned away from wetting the walls to see his wife wailing. Their baby lay limp in her arms. A school nurse rushed to her side and began CPR. There was someone radioing the emergency services, and all Tom could see was the little jerks made in his daughter as the nurse did compressions. She was so pale, and so still. Shock had him rooted to the spot. Tears were running down his face, and he turned to his wife, to see the exact expression mirrored in her face.
Their daughter had been buried 3 days later, because his wife had refused cremation. Her words, ‘Hasn’t the fire already taken enough?’, haunted his waking moments. Together, they had limped on for a time. In therapy, she’d said he’d never understood her and that he didn’t understand, marvelling at how he survived without their little girl, venom in every word. He knew then that they’d never get past it – he would always be to blame. And he could only take on all his own guilt, not anyone else’s. So he sat with her, and told her he was leaving, because there was no way out of this darkness together, and he was not here to light her way out. Quietly, she had understood, and known it was too late to fix. They parted, each hoping that one day there could be forgiveness and redemption for them both. And not having to be strong any more, he sobbed for weeks.
He broke down to his humblest parts. He ran away. Parts of his world he’d wanted to show her, the world he’d always wanted to see, he went to. And at the end of that time, he wanted to come home, to be close to her memory. So he did.
One day, in a city park in the middle of autumn, with all the leaves raining about like embers, a girl with kind eyes asked him why his eyes were full of echoes and grief. Without meaning to, he spilled his soul out to her. Every hurt was aired, every tear re-shed. It happened the time after, and the time after that. One night in their friendship, she took him to her arms and suddenly he felt light again. The goodness that girl turned upon him healed him inside out.
He knew he had found the woman that was his new life. And he knew he’d had to send off the old, before the new would be free. So on the anniversary of the fire, with her had on his arm, he had called his ex-wife, and asked her to come out and let it go. She accepted. And here he stood, waiting for redemption. Waiting to be free.