The Houses that Can Burn
In the Blue Mountains bushfires of 1994, my cousin’s house was caught in a firestorm. They knew it was coming. Half the street fled, half stayed. There were no right answers, each family did what they thought was best, or all they could do.
My uncle stayed in the house with them. They’d hosed the roof, removed the dead leaves, taken all the precautions the rural fire brigade had issued. Houses were exploding, one by one, down the street. The sky was black with smoke.
The fire rattled closer and closer, down the street, skipping certain houses like Israelite doors painted with lamb’s blood, devouring others whole. My uncle said it was like being in hell, all shadows orange, all air thick.
Others who fled either lived or lost everything. Others who stayed either lived or lost everything.
There was never a right answer.
When my body shut down last year, I fled. I took no precautions, left the lights on, the doors unlocked. Abandoned myself in the night, a shadow against the fire, retreating as far as the arctic until the flames were fluttering sparks in the dark west.
I returned home, months later, to find everything moved, ever so slightly. As though children had come in to turn over my knick knacks in their small, smooth hands, sanding down wild edges, their thumbs hooked behind the hinges of my jaw, patient, careful. It was not unpleasant, but it was disorienting, to have the mess corralled while I was frozen all those months.
(It wasn’t accidental – as useless as therapy felt some weeks, it was a glacial drift back to land. Moving through a frozen sea in increments, the strange absence of the arctic, back toward the houses that could burn, the unfrozen world.)
Whatever bravery comes with returning home I can claim, accidental but true. There was never a right answer. I fled because I could not stay, and returned only when I could. It’s luck, and precaution, and gut instinct, and fraught.