What fear was

Where no farmers had ploughed the trees or settled seeds to graze the soil, where the folded arms of scrub bar gullies, where the wide buttongrass plains swelter under peaks of old quartz, there, a boy with his hands and a girl with her feet went out to learn what fear was; their coats on and off, steady offerings calming the drizzle, the evening tiring out and resting as they waded the cool creek, ducked below mosquitoes and planted their tent, pouring torches over the fuel stove that sat bubbling water into dusty grub, the climb, said the girl with her feet, I can’t see it being much of a problem, and the boy with his hands nodded, no way, and the dry lightning sounded in the air as the clouds found few tears; just as we dangle our eyes across the drying grass, useless golden grass, the parched tomatoes and papery corn, this is not the colour of our island but the westerlies have drummed the moisture out, our hollow backyard rivulet with its ferns fading ill and the evergreens flushing autumn, the shells of marsupials chewing edgy stones and the water tank fasting through another hot day when we take to the blank, startled beaches, the salt water infested with bodies, while others hurtle for the high country, the argument of mountains that the boy with his hands and the girl with her feet stared down an hour’s trudge away through the dense heat wallowing in the plains, sweat washing through their shirts and their hair and sunscreen stinging their eyes, step-step buried in the grasping mud, packs pressing thumbs through their shoulders, punching in their tailbones, drink, they said, have a drink, fine, they said, no worries, as they climbed through the roots of the moraine, resting under hung rocks with moist soaks thirsting green, look, the red christmas bells flowering, look, the view across pedder to an orphaned peak, look, as they struggled over the ridge’s relief, as they threw their loads against the grass and floated, look, look, smoke. A great pillar of smoke in the south-west. And so the boy with his hands on his hips and the girl with her feet shrivelled inside her boots, who went out to learn what fear was, fumbled their eyes on distant coals, the wind flying the ash flag well to the south, should be okay, the girl said, better up here than down in the valley, it’s a long way off, but as they stretched out to the lake their eyes remained skinned on the sky’s stain; and we with our minutes swum in the river’s sharp water are jogging to the car, towels askew and surrounded by news, we are driving home and staring at the eucalypts piled up the hill, the radio hearkening for reports and warnings, maps expanding online, the phone alert and ready, there is smoke now pouring over the back of the mountain and we focus on the same, same bulletins, our stations at the window, white air, grey skin, the haze that hovered around the cygnus cirque as the boy with his hands and the girl with her feet inched through the jagged teeth snapping at the sky, posed on the rims edging the world, low lakes nesting under pale rocks, and on the drop to a shallow tarn they met a wombat scuttling uphill, where you going? the wombat asked, and the boy with his hands explained about their full traverse, and heading out then? he asked, and the wombat blurred her ears back and yeah, no views here, it’s rubbish, should be right to head on, keep plenty worried water for tomorrow, and they strode forwards, finding and losing the vista in steep gullies and the slow spreading smoke, until two wallabies hurtled past them, pulled up and turned, munching by the everlasting daisies and the spread of alpine richeas, what do you reckon, they asked, anything to worry about? and the girl with her feet, staring and admiring their elongated paws, said, we don’t know what fear is, just keep going I reckon, us too said the roos, we’re heading all the way to feder, five days we hope, we’ll be right, hope we’ll be right, as we stew and swot the scrawled notes tacked to the kitchen’s wooden wall, computers first and then the chooks, and if we have time heap the paintings and the books and the clothes in the back of the car and streak for the road down to town, though if the road is sliced take off to the south, and if we see it growing on the hilly ridge just jump for the car and go, go, so many dry and windy days, we remember when the trees were gentle, holding hands and idling, where have they gone, where has it got to now wondered the boy and the girl on a bright bride of a morning that was quickly turning bleary as they stamped the slow leg, fishing packs up cliffs with the rope biting their bruised fingers, creeping through burrows in the roofs of caves, the smoke was to the north and to the south even as the white flecks of ash rained silently in the loitering breeze, closer, the beast was closer and they were locked on the range, closer, do they flow back to the chill lake or drop and rush for the dam, do they keep along the route to the high moor, does it burn, they wondered, can it get a clean grip on the alpine turf, and they listened to the rattling of helicopters, echoes slapping off the cliffs, the smell of soot in their clothing, keep climbing and if there’s danger then surely, surely they’ll be gathered in arms and carried up from red clutches over the olive map, fine, we’ll be fine, we hope in our cabin on the outskirts of town as the repeated roar of choppers crackles the evening, our thoughts filled with bursting valleys and flat yards, scorched fences, faces under jetties and rust in the leaves and the air as it leaps through the canopy and rips homes to pieces, darkness painted on the land, and lying in tentative sheets, rhythm shuddering the night air, we are worried, we are fearful, we are scared

Ben Walter

Ben Walter’s stories, essays and poems have appeared in Lithub, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and many other publications. He is the fiction editor of Island.

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