Bushfire Horror in Australia: February Fear

Grace was busy hoeing in her vegetable garden. A widow of twelve months, she no longer cared about her appearance as she rarely went out. She cut her hair in short bans, put her false teeth in only when she went out or had company, and her daily attire was a man’s shirt and bib and brace overalls. As she hoed, she recalled the time when she and William had first bought the property. It had seemed like a dream come true. Admittedly, the house itself was a bit run down but they both agreed that the setting was perfect for raising children. It was at the end of a long valley with hills on three sides. Small patches of loganberries, raspberries and black currants were well established on the property. At the back door there was a large peach tree, and on both sides of the creek – which ran beside the house – there were numerous cherry trees. A couple of pear trees and a huge old quince stood in the front yard. Along the end of the black current patch, a dozen assorted apple trees were in full bloom. Plenty of fruit to keep them in jam, preserves and pies, and plenty of top, loamy soil cleared beside the creek for growing a vegetable garden big enough to supply not only their own needs, but some left over to sell too. A perfect place to raise kids, with an unlimited supply of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of fresh air and sunshine to keep them strong and healthy. William had been very sick and it was hoped that the move from the city would bring about a recovery. Three months later he was dead.

It was a very hot day, and the heat was starting to get to Grace who stopped to mop her brow. She had just decided to go and get herself a cool drink from the nearby creek when a sudden roaring filled the air. It sounded like an express train coming out of a long, dark tunnel. Grace jerked her head up, and looking wildly around for the source, let out a groan of terror as she watched a huge fireball coming over the back hill. Her small round spectacles reflected the oncoming fire as she willed herself not to panic. For a moment she thought again of her dead spouse. ‘Damn you Will,’ she sobbed, cursing him for leaving her with six young children to raise. She realised she was on the verge of hysteria and looked around for something to focus on. ‘Thank god the kids are at school,’ she uttered fervently, the thought of having them with her at the moment sending a shiver of terror up her spine.

The old milking cow tethered beneath the clothes-line mooed with fright, breaking into her chaotic thoughts, dropping her hoe, Grace raced through the garden to her. ‘Come on Gertie,’ she said, as she unclipped the cows’ tether and literally dragged her over to the recently ploughed paddock. She dropped the tether to open the gate and Gertie tried to escape. Grace snatched up the tether of the now thoroughly frightened beast and yanked her through the gate, fear lending her super strength. She unclipped the collar around the cow’s neck. ‘go on, get,’ she yelled, giving her a good wack on the rump with the collar that sent the cow in a crazed race down the paddock, kicking up her hind quarters.

Remembering the chooks she frantically raced back through the garden to let them out. ‘You’ll have to take your chance along with the others,’ she said, as they flew clucking and squawking out of the hen-house. Looking toward the fire again she saw that it was coming over the side hills as well now. Several roos bounded across the road in great terrified leaps, and birds were dropping dead out of the sky. The heat was so intense, she found breathing difficult and realised that at the most, she had five minutes to leave the valley before she was cut off.

The only thing her dazed mind could think of was that she didn’t have her teeth in. ‘I must save my teeth,’ she gasped, and struggling to breathe, she raced into the house, slamming the door behind her. ‘I couldn’t bear anyone seeing me without them.’ Reaching the bedroom she quickly grabbed them, up-ending the glass and spilling water as she crammed them into her mouth. She snatched up her car keys that had been beside the glass and raced to go back outside. As she opened the door the searing heat hit her like a physical blow, burning her throat and driving her back inside. She grabbed a towel, and saturated it with water as she ran past the water barrel in the corner of the kitchen. A moment’s regret flashed through her mind that William had died before he could install running water in the house for her. Now it would never be done.

She twisted the towel around her head, covering her nose and mouth, and again ran outside and raced to her car. As she grabbed the handle to open the door her fingers stuck to the red-hot metal. With a scream of agony she pulled her hand away leaving burnt skin behind. Running over to the clothes-line, Grace tore off a shirt which she then wound around her hand and arm for protection. Returning to the car she reefed open the door and slid behind the steering wheel. Slotting the key into the ignition she turned it but the engine wouldn’t start. Leaping out of the car again she popped the hood and checked that the battery and spark plug leads were firmly in place but found nothing wrong with them. She heard the roaring getting louder. Frantic, she looked for the fault and finally realised that the heat had evaporated the petrol from the carburetor. Dashing back behind the steering wheel, she frantically turned the key, put her foot hard down on the excelerator, and kept winding the motor over until the carburetor flooded. She could feel panic beginning to rise again at the delay and moaned with terror.

After what seemed an eternity, the motor coughed and spluttered into life. She grated the gears as she shoved it into first and went speeding down the road. As she shifted into second gear she glanced up the slope running beside the road to see the fire about fifty feet above her. It was racing through the tree-tops with hurricane speed and would reach the road in a matter of seconds. The roar of it obliterated all other sounds and it was hard to see the road through the heat and smoke haze. Everything was distorted, but with glassy-eyed determination, Grace kept the car going. She nearly gave up when first one tyre blew out, then the other three blew in quick succession. ‘You’ve got to keep going, you can’t let me down now,’ she silently begged, as she kept her foot pressed against the excelerator. The rims moving on the rutted gravel surface made holding the car on the road a miracle in itself. ‘I must get through,’ she told herself firmly, ‘there is no-one to look after the kids if I die.’ Finally she reached the bottom of the valley only to see that the fire had already been through, destroying her elderly neighbour’s home.

Danny, the neighbour’s twenty-three years old mentally handicapped son was standing in the middle of the road with a large, open-topped tin at this feet. ‘Stop Mrs. Gracy, stop,’ he sobbed waving his arms in the air while tears streamed down his cheeks. He started making a high pitched wailing noise. Grace brought the car to a juddering halt and got out to go to his aid. She found that she could breathe without the towel over her face but that she could hardly stand up and listlessly realised that it was a reaction to her terror. ‘Come on Grace,’ she admonished herself, ‘Don’t pack it in yet. Danny needs your help.’ She willed herself to be strong. Gently capturing Danny’s hands in her own, she held them still as she had been taught during her nursing career, and spoke to him quietly, although she felt like screaming and blubbering herself. ‘Where is your mother Danny?’ she asked. He didn’t speak, but looked down to the tin and broke out into fresh wailing. Grace followed his gaze to the tin and nearly fainted with fright and horror as she looked upon the charred body parts protruding from it. ‘Oh my god,’ she moaned, ‘what next?’ there was no question about leaving Danny there, but how to get him to go with her? She knew that if she tried to take the tin from him he would go berserk. She opened the car’s back door. Precious seconds were lost, convincing him that it was alright because his mother had taught him to never, ever get into anyone’s car. ‘Come on Danny love,’ she coaxed him, ‘I’m going to take you and your mum for a little ride.’ He finally got in, timidly, hugging the tin to his chest.

She got back behind the steering wheel and for a second time had to flood the carburetor to start it. She revved the engine and drove along the winding gravel road, looking at the charred and bloated bodies of sheep and cattle, grotesquely distorted limbs mute testimony to their agonising death, dotting the blackened paddocks on both road verges. As she drove, the absence of bird and animal sounds finally impressed itself upon her. The only sound came from Danny, quietly sobbing to himself in the back seat, and muttering to his mother in the tin as he hugged it close to his chest. She saw the shop at last and slowly, bringing the car to a halt beside the crowd which had gathered there, she turned the ignition off.

The crowd watched – not believing their eyes – as the little car approached, it’s paint badly blistered – large patches burnt completely off – it’s tyres tattered shreds of rubber hanging off it’s bent and blackened wheel rims. Behind the steering wheel slumped a glassy-eyed individual, grimy, blistered face framed by a tangle of singed grey hair.

Feeling gentle hands on her shoulders grace turned toward the open door, a moving automation as she was helped from the car. A glass of brandy was pressed into her nerveless hands which were shaking so much that the glass had to be held to her dry and bleeding lips so she could drink. She tried to tell them about Danny in the back seat of the car, beyond words, she simply pointed. In all the noise and confusion they hadn’t heard his wailing. Those nearest moved to help Danny, who emerged slowly, still clutching his tin tightly to his chest. ‘Oh sweet Jesus,’ cried a man, suddenly aware of the contents of the tin Danny held tightly to his chest. He turned to the back of the car and vomited.

Exhausted and in shock, Grace quietly slumped into unconsciousness, her soul crying out for Danny who was standing there, lost and in pain, desperately seeking to hear the voice of his mother from the charred and burnt limbs. When she regained consciousness her first thoughts were for Danny. ‘Danny,’ she managed to croak from her raw and burning throat. ‘It’s alright,’ she heard a voice, gentle and reassuring. ‘I’m a doctor, don’t worry about anything. Danny’s fine, his Auntie is looking after him. You’ve both had a very miraculous escape.’ A small glass was pressed to her lips. ‘Swallow this medicine, it will help you to sleep.’ As Grace fell into a drowsy slumber she glanced around her, but didn’t see her teeth in the glass of water beside the bed.

THE END

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