A Fire Starter Speaks Of His Love
It’s her hair that makes you want to laugh, the reddest hair you ever saw, except maybe for the picture on the box of matches which Pop says looks like some pasty faced tart peering through lipstick red curtains, hanging out for some guy to come and pay for a poke. You can’t wait to tell Pop about the red-haired lady. Like she had flames shooting out of the top of her head, you’ll say, you could almost hear them crackle and hiss, the same as that scabby brown dog you found dead in the yard crackled and hissed when you poured diesel over it and set it alight. That was something to watch, but nothing like watching the red-haired lady crying and punching Sergeant O’Rourke, begging him to let her through. You can see the smoke billowing across the bottom of the street where her house is, and then, just as the wind whips up and dies again, you get a glimpse of the Juna fire tender and two Yellowskins rolling the hose across the kerb.
Jeez, you wish you were down there with them. The red-haired lady is giving O’Rourke such a hard time you could almost slip through without him seeing. ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ O’Rourke keeps saying to her, soothing like, trying to hold onto her. She’s as slippery as an eel, wriggling and crying, and O’Rourke’s hey hey heying getting him nowhere until he grabs hold of her wrists, real tight, like he wants to play some dumb kids’ game. She goes kinda limp, then, time enough for O’Rourke to push her up against the side of the squad car and hold her there.
‘Please,’ she says, ‘please …’ but O’Rourke still has hold of her. ‘You can’t go down there,’ he tells her, shouting it now, like she’s deaf or stupid. He has his face right up close to hers, but she isn’t looking at him. She’s looking down the street to where her house is, and the fire burning all around it, the flames jumping and crackling and hissing. Laughing.
That’s my girl for you, laughing at you, laughing and licking her fiery lips, just burning (ha ha) to eat you up. You think you can stop me? she says. No one can stop me. The Yellowskins can’t stop me. I laugh at them. I laugh at them rolling out their hoses. They turn their tanks of water on me and it’s no more than a squirt of piss on a blazing log. Stone walls can’t stop me. I can jump roads and rivers. I’m on my own in gullies, racing across the tops of trees. I can move through an open paddock quicker than a mad snake. Fences and chook pens and lean-to sheds are just a taste. Lady, you’ve got no hope. I’m on the roof of your place now, licking out your gutters. I’m tasting the walls, running my fingers under the eaves, along the windowsills. I’m so hungry I could eat the bricks from your chimney. Hear me. Hear me burn your house down. I’m burning your pretty curtains, the rugs on your floor. I’m burning your books and your bed and the long dresses hanging in your wardrobe. I’ve boiled your goldfish. I know everything about you. I know the pattern on your plates and saucers. I know the movies you keep, the CDs you bought. I know what pictures you like, the photos you took of your Mum and Dad. I’ve seen the notes you write yourself, the bills you haven’t paid, the dirty washing piling up in the laundry basket. If you’ve got letters from some smooth-talking guy who’s been into your pants, I’ve burnt them. I’ve burnt the termites under the floorboards, I’ve barbecued the lamb chops in the fridge, melted the honey mango ice cream. I’ve cleaned out the pantry …
Red Hair knows it. O’Rourke’s still got hold of her, but sort of loosely, like their positioning themselves for a country music dance. He’s talking at her, jaw jaw jaw, the old business … fire … heat … smoke … suffocation … death … it’s like he’s telling her a bad news story, getting his side in before she hears it on the six o’clock report. Red Hair shakes her head. No, she says, this isn’t happening to me …
Down at the creek where it started there’d be just ash now. Ash and baked earth and smouldering splinters of fence posts hanging from blackened wire. And silence. Except for the crows, maybe, always the first to return to pick the steaming flesh from a possum or lizard or a brush turkey, fat as Nan’s Sunday joint. Poor little creatures, Nan always says, watching television with Pop sitting in his old chair, crunching on peanuts. ‘Poor little creatures,’ Nan says, waiting for the news guy to say, ‘… caught in the conflagration …’
Conflagration … deflagration … phlegethon… you know these words from Pop’s thesaurus. So many words, you never knew half of them existed. When no one’s around, you sing some of them out loud, like it’s a poem you’re reading.
Fiery … flagrant… ignescent … piceous …
Emblaze … incinerate … cremate …
Some don’t sound like fire words at all, but you sing them all the same.
Calcinate … cauterise … self-immolate …
How would it be, you keep thinking, to burn to death? Pop says no one ever died from burning because the smoke or the heat gets to you first. Best thing, if you know it’s coming, is for your heart to give out. Just the fear of it. Pop says he’s seen more burnt bodies than charred steaks on the barbecue, but you’d be dumb to believe that. Pop always takes charge of the barbecue, and how Pop likes his steaks is with the moo cooked right out of them. Pop can’t take the taste of blood in his mouth. But give Pop a beer and get him talking, and Nan’ll be saying, ‘You watching them steaks, Pop?’ And you’d smell them. You’d smell the fat crisping to a cinder. You’d think Pop would notice, but he always says human flesh burning has a smell of its own. Those times you’ve lit a match under your calloused fingertips, you know what he means.
If you’d been Red Hair, you’d never have left the house. You know the drill, see, you know what to do to survive. It’s the same as that list of words for fire which you can recite like a poem. You know it by heart:
Protect yourself from radiant heat.
Keep away from windows.
Fill big containers with water.
Watch for embers.
Control mini fires.
Stay near an outside door for when the fire front has passed.
Maybe—Pop’s advice—say a little prayer.
A Yellowskin comes running up the street, waving his arms and hollering at O’Rourke.
‘Move back! Move back! Move back!’
You can feel it, like someone blowing on the back of your neck, making your skin prickle. The wind’s on the change.
It’s just a big game, sporting with nature, Pop says. After October till the autumn rains come, it’s the only game to play.
Bio: Ian Kennedy Williams is the author of three novels and three collections of short stories. His novel REGRET (Penguin Books 2002) has recently been republished as an ebook by Momentum Books (momentumbooks.com.au)