The Burning of the Brumbies

The Burning of the Brumbies

All summer, black leaves fell against the house.
We cleared the gutters, moved sticks from the yard.
Each day, the wind returned them.

Emergency radio mapped bushfires, that were always burning
Residents of St Albans, it is now too late to leave,
take shelter from the approaching fire.

We drew the curtains, watched the Boxing Day test match,
while all around us, smoke filled the dividing range
like an ocean.

In the bush, ants rebuilt their towers
and retreated underground.
Coloured rings appeared on the torsos of snow gums–
warnings we’d forgotten how to read.

The parrots vanished.

Sometimes, walking the dog, we’d glimpse clouds
that could be brumbies,
like holy beings sloping under trees.

Once an appaloosa mare crashed out of scrub
turning mid-flight, and paused, a strange tangerine light
tracing the muscles of her neck. Rays slanting
through smoke– and for a half-second, held us
in her startled gaze.

All summer, black leaves fell into our hair.
Country spoke to us through pyrocumulus clouds
above the range.

We herded cattle in freak dust storms,
the farm ute swinging left, then right, over landscapes
we could no longer see– black rain from fire clouds
streaking the windscreen.

At night, we climbed the empty watertank to watch
fire crest the mountains in a glowing line–
grasshoppers, flying on the heated wind,
battered our faces.

And then Country’s tone changed.

Exhausted Fire fighters slept at the pub, their cordons
pushed back as flame bladed through acacias,
rising on columns of explosive oils
igniting the air.

Wavebanks of heat rolled into firestorms,
like Napalm before a head of wind.
And we listened then–
watching weather patterns,
drawing fire predictions on a map,

but it was too late.

We turned the ute into a fire fighting machine,
with pumps and hoses, a watertank tilting on the tray,
and we fought– extinguishing spot fires,
ash in our mouths, ash settling
like white moths in our hair.

We held containment lines for a week.

When the front came,
it sounded like thundering horses.
Our cows suffocated.
Peaches boiled in our orchards.
Across the plantations, in an unspeakable
violence of light, pines fell
in black lines.

The scrub was smoldering
when we saw the brumbies again,
hooves flying, their flanks bright
against charcoal, against the flashing red
of firetrucks– they came out of smoke
like tongues of flame
before an immolating Pentecostal wind.

And last among them, the appaloosa mare,
scrambling out of ash,
her mane and forelegs burnt.

Along the Snowy Mountains,
Wedgetails perched in ash,
between the chalk-white bones of gums.

We bulldoze bodies into trenches–
Koalas, who’d dropped like fireballs.
Wombats cooked in their burrows.

It was months before we found the appaloosa mare,
half-hidden in a field of regenerating grevillea–
just the trace of something equine
shot through with light.