Skeletal trees splashed with silver and charcoal glare down upon the winding road. If you stand on the very crest of the hill, they look like an army of charred trunks and twisted limbs.
No animals move about within the shadows.
No birds nest in the trunks of the trees.
No insects make a sound in the afternoon light.
He walks between the trees, leaving no footprints upon the baked earth. Not until he reaches the layers of ash which lie as thick as snow. He remembers the panic and destruction, but only vaguely, as if the memories were spawned in a childhood nightmare. Fragments of sight and smell come to him as he picks his way through the trail.
His ears are still filled with a deafening roar.
He can still smell burning in his nostrils.
It didn’t take them long to figure out how the fire had started. They suspected it had been deliberately lit. Who would do that? Almost anyone, according to the police. Everyone was treated as a suspect, from the elderly neighbours on top of the hill to the kids who were playing soccer in the field below.
He tries to recover the lost memories by seeing it all again.
He knows that he was somehow involved. But how? He knows he had witnessed the formation of this eerie nightmare. He can feel it beneath the burns that mottle his skin and the newly formed scar-tissue across his back.
It was forged by the very foundations of the human condition.
Because when total destruction lies within such close reach of our grasping fingertips, the temptation to pull the trigger has proven too strong time and time again.
They found the culprit eventually.
These woods were set ablaze by a father of three.
A man well-liked and hard working.
An integral member of the local community.
The first ember was lit by his weathered hands. It quickly evolved into a firestorm bearing down on innocent homes with families shaking from fright within. The raging fire incinerated everything which lay in its precarious path.
Birds flapped away in a panic with singed feathers.
Rivers evaporated into steam and dams boiled in their clay basins.
The result was a barren landscape; a permanent keepsake of the death and destruction brought about by two itching palms.
He stops between two crumbling trees and looks about.
The spot is unrecognizable, yet strangely familiar. The first flames leapt up from this very spot, he knows it; he can feel it. Suddenly he remembers. He remembers walking through the bush as he collected Blackwood seeds in a brown paper bag, before stopping because he could hear an odd gushing sound.
Peering through the trees, he saw the man, this father of three, pouring petrol over a pile of kindling. He remembers watching this monster set it alight.
‘What the hell are you doing?!’ he shouted.
The man looked at him with wide terrified eyes for just a moment, like a deer caught in the headlights, before jumping into his truck and racing off down the dirt track. The flames were made furious by the eucalyptus leaves, and too fast-moving for him to escape on foot.
Smoke filled the air, turning the warm summer day into midnight.
He crawled along the forest floor, his eyes stinging as he felt his way through the blackness. Heat was bearing down upon him. It melted his clothes and seared his skin. He fell head first into an opening in the ground, and pushed himself deep into the wombat’s burrow until he passed out from exhaustion.
When he awoke the fire had passed.
He was eventually found by the firefighters collapsed on the road. They forced water down his throat and rinsed his eyes as they waited for the paramedics to arrive at the scene. He was in hospital for a long time. They wrapped him up in bandages and the nurses kept a constant watch. The doctors asked him questions and the police tried to interview him, but his memory failed, so eventually they stopped asking.
There were other witnesses anyway.
He stands in the smoking ruin, his hands shaking as he gazes in horror at the destruction. He gasps and begins to sob uncontrollably. Everything was gone, utterly destroyed by the fire.
His home, his family, his life.
It was the legacy of an idiot.