With the millennium came the drought. To the east of Palerang two ancient forests started to die.
[This is a fragment from the draft novel, "The Wolves of Ragnarök". It roughly follows earlier extracts and is set around the fires which damaged Nowra on the South Coast of New South Wales, immediately before the Canberra firestorm, 2003. The wolf Hati (mentioned only briefly in this extract) is associated with Monday - and is fated to destroy the Moon in the initial phase of Ragnarök.
This has previously been published in draft form. This is now in final form.]
This other world unbidden -
Cold eyes staring
And the wolf Hati emerged, regarded them with interest. The moon arose, and the wolf gave the cry of the chase and bounded into the air.
The thief dropped to the ground, ‘I cannot leave here.’
Freyja looked at him with contempt, ‘No. Not until you explain yourself.’
With the drought the forests dried. The Duea was normally a vast cool damp sunken forest, as old as the hills. Its isolation did not save it from the touch of the sun. The highland forests of the Tallaganda was covered in communities of banksia and high gums cooled by mountain mists. The banksias wilted in the heat. Within both forests stands of remnant trees bent to sharp winds, dropping branches. Torn by wind storms, battered by cold and heat, the forests started to die. Along the ranges, forests that had survived a millennia, finally perished.
And then, one terrible summer, the memory of the forests burned.
We fought the fires in the Duea along the western escarpment, trying to contain the devastation to the forest. Trying to keep it from breaking out to destroy the nearby farm land. At night, like a barren desolate landscape, the old forest smoldered. Hills were lit like craters. They burnt fiercely. It was like a scene from hell.
After that fire consumed the last living morsel in that old forest, a new savage fire erupted to the North on the mountain tops, west of Nowra. A strange war, the fronts carefully mapped and remapped at the fire control centre in the town. The town did not sleep for months. The fire raided its outlying homes, destroying the isolated and unprotected, like a predator stalking a frightened herd.
It was my first command. I led a dozen trucks to fight this fire at night, then back to town to sleep, fitfully in the heat of the day.
A pattern emerged. From sunset, in the first hours of darkness, the fire burned hot and unpredictable. Risk was high, we moved cautiously along the high mountain roads, frightened of the fires below sighting us, and racing up the slopes to join us. The fire traveled high in the trees, loud, pervasive, alive and free.
When the humidity started to rise, the tables turned. Then we moved to the offensive, laying down our own fire, establishing breaks around the isolated farms and sheds, along the old bush roads. The world was as light as day – bright in the explosion of the dry wood, the crackling of bush, the crack of falling timber, as we set fire against fire.
In the early hours of the pre-dawn, the fire returned to the ground and settled back into the earth. Only the candles, hollow trees alight, continued to light the sky, showering surreal showers of sparks onto the blackened landscape. In the cool of the rising humidity, the stars blanketed the sky, sharp and vivid, before the moon arose,
Tired, and black with soot, men and women firefighters would make temporary camp. The fire trucks quieted. There was time to light a fire for a billy, as the mountains closed in against us, and the world shrunk to the glow of the fire.
In the silence, the sounds of the bush returned: the call of owls and other night birds, the shuffle of wombats and kangaroos, the cry of the injured and dying... and the warrigal - the Australian wolf
On the first night we heard just the one infrequent warrigal call. As the nights continued, so too the number that would sit, outside the light of our camp, retreating further still, as the pale light of the rising moon would cast a soft blue light among the ashes of forest.
Days and nights ran together, an easy camaraderie developed, but we fell silent when the warrigal joined us. As they gave voice to their corroboree, calling for the sun to rise and the fire to reignite.
One night, part way through this time, a small branch fell from a tree and dropped me, shattering my goggles. I should have died – but the heavy helmet took the damage. I do not know how long I was unconscious on the forest floor.
A crew leader roused me, fire all around. I remember the fear in her eyes, my wet face, the taste of smoke and a strange fey scent in the air.
Later that night, around the fire, she said she heard a warrigal calling, and thinking that she might finally catch a glimpse of one, she followed it to my unconscious body. She joked that the warrigal was planning to make a meal of me. The laughter died down, as the warrigal ringed the camp, and joined each other in lament.
Early that morning I made a discovery that has haunted me ever since. Not far from where I had rested, in a small hollow, one of the warrigal had died. A young female - badly burned and in poor condition.
I don’t know why, but I fell to my feet and cried. In the blue light of the moon, ashes from the bottlebrush fell around me like snow - shadows cast as bright as day.
I know you are there:
snowflakes in your hair melting
as tears in my eyes
Her shadow followed me from that place – a silent reminder of my failure. And she watched, as my life fell apart. She was there when Nowra burned. And then the Brindabellas,
, and Wee
Jasper. She dogged every move I made, watched the lie of my life unravel.
Finally, when we rescued a child, three years on, high in the mountains, I
begged her to save the child’s life. I argued with her for hours as the
child lay there, lifehue gradually fading. I begged her to take my life instead.
But she simply stared at me. Canberra
And so I ran. I ran, hiding in far places – and she followed me.
He turns to where the wolf had been and then looked into the sky – at Hati pursuing the moon.
Once I had a friend -
and here we dwelt in one place
no fear tomorrow
We knew where we stood
travelling far side by side
with the magic of us
Yes, once friends – then more
in the cool of our night and
the touch of delight
Tears falling, time slows -
as the storm clouds crept louder
and the void struck quiet
I left so swiftly
cast to the west through high mists
leaving dreams silenc'd
Wander'd alone and lost -
and from her heart sweet loving
no healing those hurts
From the star-lit sky, bathed in the blood of the moon, the wolf Hati howls his victory.
She said, ‘This was not supposed to start now. What have you done?’
rev October 2013
rev October 2013