Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

The wild red herbivore

The weather.

They speak of it all the time.

Watch the inReach.

The inReach blinks to communicate it has a message. A message bounced land to sky to land. Mobile phone to satellite to inReach to mobile phone. Morris wipes his brow. The message is from Angie, safe in the lowlands, a world away. Tomorrow’s forecast: Sunny. Mt Baw Baw—30 degrees Celsius.

Turning the phone off, Morris sets the inReach where they can watch it. It’s not blinking. They look at the sky.

‘Sunday’s heading for forty degrees.’

‘It’ll be hotter here. We get less breeze than Baw Baw.’

‘Sunday’s still a way off.’

There’s only one road out of the mountains and that plays on their minds. There’s an air strip and a dam. Poor options if the Wild Red Herbivore, driven mad by wind, comes raging and ripping and wrecking its way through the forest. It’s savaged this forest before, leaving scars and stags—dead standing trees. But now, there’s enough fuel to sustain it should it return. And the road out is rutted, and winds round and about as it follows first the creek and later the river, along the flats over a kilometre and a half below. It is narrow and subject to tree-fall. They have a chainsaw in the ute but this gives little comfort.

Fires have already sprung up below. Reports say:

Under control.

But can they be contained when the temperature soars and the wind howls? When emergency crews are spread thin?

They message Angie. Land to sky to land. Mobile phone to inReach to satellite to mobile phone:

Before index hits extreme we go.

They watch the weather. While it’s calm, they’re okay. They look for scudding clouds. Listen for air movement behind the trees.

 

Dinner.

As soon as they start to cook, flies materialise.

Out of the air.

Out of the foliage.

From the camp’s periphery, where they’ve been flexing flight muscles in a silent warm up.

Every night.

A military-sized operation.

A mission of intimidation.

Scare tactics.

Every night. Out-numbered. Morris and Christie hold strong.

Fending and flapping.

Swatting and swearing.

Eating fast.

Respite. Twice a day. Between 6:45 am, when they get up, and 7:30 am when the sky yellows. Between 7:30 pm, when the horizon reddens, and 8:45 pm when they go to bed. These are the cool times about camp. When the air is a thoughtful friend. Attentive in its caresses of exposed skin. Intolerant of flies, which it banishes. Somewhere. They don’t know where the flies go, they don’t think much of it. But it’s important none-the-less.

During the cool times they sit at the table. Together. Like an old married couple. But neither old nor married. Certainly not a couple. If it’s morning they drink Earl Grey tea. Eat two pieces of raisin bread with two pieces of sharp tasty cheese. To prolong the moment, they have another cuppa. If it’s evening they have Earl Grey tea and butternut snap biscuits. Christie dunks hers. Morris crunches his. Always they have seconds on the Earl Grey.

 

Christie lies in the purple haze. The tent fabric is calm overhead. Her gear casts shadows. By head torch she reads Don DeLillo. Some nights she looks at botanical books but not tonight. Tonight is Don DeLillo and he helps her not to think the thoughts. Each morning, with the sun’s heat, the thoughts come.

The long dry grasses of the camp are connected to the dry shrubs –

are connected to the eucalypts –

and how the Wild Red Herbivore loves eucalypts –

all those phenols –

those oils that people vaporise to disguise odours or dab on hankies to relieve head colds.

Fission. The moment when the air changes. When it goes from cool to clammy. When its scent moves from dew and damp to peppermint and gum. The moment she can smell each plant. The moment her mind gives over to the Wild Red Herbivore.

The Wild Red Herbivore is a predator. A hunter. Following their scent. And it will stampede them. Flatten them. Erect, in a heartbeat, an impenetrable wall. Thick and suffocating. A coffin of bush.

 

Every morning they pack camp.

Ready to run. Ready to drop everything and get off the mountain.

Drive the long winding road down.

Down and out. Out of there. To the plains below.

Away from the eucalypts and their never-ending siren call to the Wild Red Herbivore.

Because the Wild Red Herbivore will come –

transported by the dryness of the climate and the longness of the grass –

windiness of the wind –

steepness of the terrain.

And the eucalypts. Leading it on. Up. Up the mountain slope and into the broad-leaved shrubs. The deep untouched gullies. Seeking its searing burn to release their seed, its ash as a bed for their young.

 

One site has a brown snake weaving through the undergrowth. Christie sees its tail disappear. And the rest of the day they spend nervously stomping so as not to take it by surprise.

Another site has a planet’s worth of ants. Every surface, every time they stop or put something down. Tiny black bodies erupting from the earth. Swarming clipboards. Up bootlaces and trousers. Inside shirt-sleeves and onto necks. Christie watches Morris, swatting himself violently.

‘They don’t bite.’

‘Bullshit they don’t.’

Morris measures soil depth; takes photographs, GPS referenced for repeatability; hammers in wooden pegs with site tags, and metal pegs in case fire claims the wooden ones. Christie records plant species. Everything’s aimed at monitoring change over time.

Will the bog areas contract, eventually to nothing?

Where bog meets forest. The ecotone. Meandering and complex or hard and fast. This is where the questions will be answered. In ten years, in twenty?

‘Could we really cause the bogs to disappear?’

They pass each other and continue. Christie flexes her arm. It will ache again tonight, just like Morris’s back. He told her his back aches from measuring soil depth. Pushing in the metal probe. Pulling it out against the earth’s suction.

The schedule is tight. They’re always outrunning the fires, beating the snow. Maybe the next team, ten years from now, won’t have to contend with snow. Just fire. Fire, all year round. The reign of the Wild Red Herbivore. Feasting on everything in its sight, gorging itself. Running rampant, the length and breadth of the continent. Eating grass and shrubs and herbs and insects and bugs and trees and birds and wallabies and their homes and our homes and our communities. Morris leans into the probe pushing it deep. Christie wipes the sweat which is wending its way from under her hat through sunscreen and into her eyes.

‘Live plants don’t burn.’

‘These plants,’ Christie touches the spindly frames wobbling above the sphagnum moss, ‘will die from the heat preceding the fire. They’ll burn alright.’

Morris straightens his back, recording soil depth by holding the probe alongside the tape measure.

‘All this measuring is a moot point then?’

‘No. People need hard data. Need to see disaster unfurling. They can’t believe it otherwise.’

They stand. Sweating. Christie bends into her pack and fussing, finds the ute key. Morris watches her tramp towards the ute.

Christie holds aloft two beers. Morris shields his eyes to see them properly. Is it a trick of the light or do they really have halos?

‘They’re not cold,’ Christie says, ignoring his outstretched hand and walking into the heart of the bog where the moss is deep and damp and spongy.

She plunges the beer into the sphagnum until the moss reaches her armpit. Her hand plays in the cold and hidden depths of old life, reappearing without the bottle. In it plunges again. The second beer is gone.

‘Don’t move.’ Morris jumps up, stumbling down the bog until he reaches her side. Pulling the GPS from his pocket he pushes Mark. Taps the buttons. ‘I’m labelling it BEERx2.’

 

While the beer cools, they work. Their minds are full only of the beer in the moss. Until the moment the white wisps seep up from below.
First, they smell it. Acrid, biting.

Second, they see it. A distant haze.

Third, they run.

It’s not even Sunday. It’s only midday Saturday. Over the last hour the weather has made itself known. Temperatures are rising sharply. The wind’s persistent blowing has morphed into a mewling animal racing through the trees. Work is unfinished. Beers are still buried.
The dirt road winds down and down, falling into new heat that rises up. The air-conditioner pumps hard. The Motor Inn is expecting them.

 

Heavy curtains are pulled in war-style blackout to keep out the heat. Air-conditioners are set to twenty-one degrees with a sign that reads: Don’t change the setting or the fuse will blow. They sit in their rooms and do their work; check fire weather warnings and updates and notifications and assess the safety of their position. Christie presses plants. Morris enters data into a spreadsheet. They drink Earl Grey tea, separately. Sometimes together.

Always they watch the sky for smoke. Opening their doors, glancing about. For the moment, all is clear at the Motor Inn and as far as the eye can see. But the Wild Red Herbivore is active elsewhere. Wrecking. Following the wind’s advice for its next move.

Fluorescent lights cut through the dark behind the curtains. Christie presses more plants, absorbed in the minutiae of identification: hairs, trigonous nuts, parallel leaf veins. Then, as an image from childhood may flicker at the edges of awareness, the slightest smell tickles her nostril hairs. For a time it goes unnoticed.

 

The smell becomes thick and urgent and she calls out, ‘Smoke.’ Opens the door to another planet—red Mars with its hazy orange hue. Pushing through the air and into Morris’ room. No knocking, just calling his name.

‘We need to pack the ute,’ Morris says, ear to the radio.

With the wind howling and smoke penetrating everything, they pack quickly. Conference by phone with Angie. Run scenarios. Listen to news radio. Watch live broadcasts of firemen and women, politicians and random locals caught unaware by camera operators. In the evening they go to an art deco pub with a new roof, their stuff in the ute parked outside.

The Publican paces, looking out the window. His wife, the Chef, comes and paces too, apron scrunched in her hand. They turn the radio up.
‘Local brigade is helping elsewhere. If it jumps the river we’ve had it,’ the Publican says.

The Chef re-ties her apron and disappears to the kitchen. The Publican places fridge-chilled glasses on the table, twists the tops off the beers. Nervously runs his hand through his hair, says conversationally, ‘Should a publican go down with the pub?’

 

Christie can’t sleep. She rehearses the evacuation in her mind. Jumping out of bed, running to the door, calling Morris.

The heavy curtains make her claustrophobic and she throws them back, letting heat into the room. No stars. She leaves the light on, not caring that people turning up late to the Motor Inn can see in. She looks at the road map, planning routes: Options one, two and three.
Outside someone says, ‘I need more teabags.’

 

Christie wakes with a start, fully clothed and slumped on the sofa. Television on, radio on. She sniffs the air, still smoky. The television states homes lost, people evacuated. She waits until the report cycles round again.

Some reporter says: ‘Fire is out of control and a south-westerly wind swing has pushed it into bushland to the north.’

A Fire Service representative discusses the potential for two fire fronts to merge.

A half glass of water sits on the table and she gulps it down. The wind direction means they’re okay at the Motor Inn. For now. But things change quickly.

She knocks on Morris’s door. He opens it fully dressed, shoes on. Invites her in for a cuppa. At 7:00 am they call Angie. By 8:00 am they are on the road, heading home.

 

Long after it’s over, Christie stands on the crowded hillside among the greys and whites and blacks. Crowded and silent at the same time. She strains her ears, trying to hear the soft beat of wings, the thump of long furry feet.

There is no yellow, no red, no green. No stirring of photosynthesising surfaces. Just ash. Ash coating everything, clinging to her, so that she merges seamlessly into the bleakness. The landscape, an open-cut mine with exposed charcoal seams and bare earth. Not bare though, there is the ash. And it colours her exposed skin to a far-off age. Dries it out, makes it flaky. Her hands remind her of her grandmother’s, after the stroke, when the greyness had pushed out her life-force.

Everywhere the trunks form a tangle and she bends and weaves. Momentarily lost. The world, a giant’s game of pickup sticks. The light no longer belongs to the morning. All the colour has bled away, lemons and pinks gone. Replaced by an eye-piercing fluorescent white that blends background with foreground and erases the horizon. Not that she is looking from a vantage point; she is heading down into the landscape. Down to a place she knew, a place where all the colours were.

Christie reaches into the bog, crispy ringlets of singed and dry sphagnum moss scrape her skin, becoming softer and gentler as she reaches deeper. Cool, then moist. Soothing. And the pleasure slows her arm; it lingers. Her body is hot and ash-covered but her arm is cool and the moisture is wicking up her shirt sleeve.

The Wild Red Herbivore has not eaten everything. Not yet. Her fingers touch a smooth hard surface and her smile stretches to a broad grin. Pleasure and hurt fuse together in the way laughter becomes crying. Morris is facing away. Bent and charcoal-blackened. Swinging a metal detector which cackles like a Geiger counter as it locates the metal pegs, safe in the soil.

Curling her fingers about the bottle, Christie pulls it free of the bog, bringing it straight to her cheek. Nestling it. Rubbing it across her brow. Licking the drops from its cool glass.

‘Found them,’ she calls, twisting the top off one and lying back in the moss.

The sky is white-washed and an even whiter cloud is forming. Morris flops next to her. Touches his bottle to hers. They each wonder what other treasures the sphagnum moss holds. They lie next to each other, staring up. High above the tangled grey and black of the stags, the cloud’s edges soften and it slips back into the whiteness of sky.

 

 

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Karen A Johnson is a Hobart-based writer. She works at the University of Tasmania.

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