Of course we werenít in the library when it started. We were tucked up in the queen size iron bedstead enjoying our anniversary weekend; childfree, carefree, cocooned from the world outside.
Real cotton sheets, crisp, white embroidered and ironed. They smell of fresh mountain air and tall timbers that surround our hideaway. Mud brick walls and whole tree trunks hold a roof of iron. Huge recycled timbers create a vaulted ceiling like an exposed ribcage. These beams survived a past as a trestle bridge across which bullocky teams lumbered 200 years before. Far from perfect I see adze and saw marks, nail scars, tar stains even burns; still they are beautiful.
I slip out of bed going down to make tea. The stone floor is warm beneath my feet. Itís going to be a scorcher, 42 degrees forecast.
Curious I open the back door, heat hits me. Parched grass reaches down to shadowy ferns and dry creek bed. The gumtrees busy overhead wave to and fro; their tangy oils permeate the air.
It had to be a total fire ban day. For once I regret no radio or television. There is no phone our mobiles donít work this far into the mountains.
Mike still snoozes, I clamber back under those luxurious sheets and sip my tea leaving him in peace; itís not everyday you celebrate 20 years of marriage.
I must have dozed off; the banging at the back door startles me.
Throwing on a shirt I follow Mike. At the door a police officer is vivid in reflector bib. Their male voices donít reach me on the stair but the tone is urgent. As Mike shuts the door he sees me and forces a casual tone, ďTheyíre just a bit worried about a fire thatís started over Greenvale way. He wants us to move out till the fuss is over.Ē
Stuff is bundled into the car. We leave. The wind is stronger now but the haze persists.
More reflector vests waving light sticks just visible through the murkiness. Joining a convoy we creep towards a stubbly playing field yellow with summer grass. We can smell the fire now. I wet a towel with water for Mike. He goes to ask questions. I start coughing and find another towel.
We are few, four or five cars two with young children. I try to smile chatting nervously. We are all scared.
I pray for the only thing I can think of Ė rain, cool wet quenching rain and lots of it.
A fire truck pulls up. The driver waves his arms in all directions, the police officer nods then points to us. For a moment we are becalmed staring at each other vacantly. The radio crackles. A decision is made. Listeners scatter.
We drive a short distance. A fire volunteer busily turns water locks; a sudden spray of water splutters from the roofline. As it rains down it evaporates on the hot tin. I glance up to the sky seeing only sparks, smoke, black motes and charred leaves.
Others bring wetted towels, blankets, quilts we cover heads and faces press them into gaps under closed doors. I wonder if itís wise to hide from fire among shelves of books but some of the fighters are inside with us. We hear more on the roof with hoses at the ready when the sprinklers fail.
Day turns to night. Sunlight is smothered. Silence becomes a deafening roar. Green forest turns to liquid fire whirling, leaping. Each tree licked by flame instantly swallowed. Sobs punctuate the air.
My prayers change. I beg for courage and mercy in death, plead with God for loved ones, for those around me and for the brave perched on the roof. I cling to my husband my friend. His lips move, words familiar and sweet come to my ears. Psalm 23 softly, slowly. The peace is contagious others join in; next The Lordís Prayer. Older voices stumble over words too long left fallow, children watch our settled faces. Water pumps die, the fire rages on.
Windows shake when a nearby explosion rips the air. Someone sings Amazing Grace. Voices harmonious, tightened by the acrid air, all join in the anthem.
The fire passes. Strangers touch, hugging in relief, whispering thanks. We follow orders.
It did rain, three days later. Within the month a furze of new growth covered charcoal trunks. I prayed the regrowth of faith likewise stirred in those human hearts.
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