It was the smell I noticed. It arrived before the seismic wave of sheer heat. It caked in my nostrils as if cauterizing a nose bleed. I swallowed it. Felt it burying in the cotton of my shirt so that after ten spin dries it’d still be there.
Photographs curled in flames. Towels smoldered and plastic melted. Columns of smoke twisted up, turning like dancers spinning to their next partner. My skin reeked of burnt newspapers and sap bubbling out of pine furniture.
Almost didn’t notice the sirens. The frame caved in, sparks sweeping upwards. Fire trucks flickered on the horizon, red lights distant as landing lights on a plane. I jogged to the car, glancing over my shoulder, wanting to stay and watch my burning home. Something within the fire hissed, probably detergents. As it reached the last room bottles exploded, glass shredding and ricocheting.
I knew the back roads. Familiar as gliding a hand along self harming scars under my arms. No need for headlights. Didn’t want the fire crews to see me anyway. Five minutes away I still saw the fire. It burned Sunday mornings of peeling bra straps off indentations left in Amy’s skin. Fire disintegrated our ribs slotting together, lightly kissing the salt of her chest, sleeping against the bones and cartilages of her back. I eased the car along tracks. In the rear vision, fire lit like sunset.
Only on the main road, I turned headlights on. Insects clouded beams. A log truck jolted past, buffeting a side of the car. By day I watched those trucks barrel along highways, churning dust that turned with the patterns of high pressure systems on weather maps.
Amy’s house was at the back of another home. Retirees in the front house sold the backyard two years ago. They’d built what I’d heard was a two bedroom place with a bathroom so small there wasn’t enough room for mould. I couldn’t understand how Amy afforded it.
I parked out the front. Walked down the side of the house. Yellow light shone from a bare bulb above the door. I called towards the house. Amy used to ignore knocking. Dismissed it as a Jehovah’s Witness or kids wanting to retrieve balls. There was no response. I banged a clenched fist against the door and retreated down steps. Sirens in distance lifted faintly. The door opened and a semi circle glow fell across steps.
“You,” she said. “What do you want?” She slouched against a line of weatherboards needing painting. Something about her stance often made me feel Amy was assembled rather than grown. Light glimmered a halo around her hair. She was lithe, one crash diet after another.
“So I can’t come in? Even to talk?”
“Talk here. Use abbreviations. Don’t want it to last long.”
I angled to look past her. Knew what it’d be like inside. Box of nail polish tinkling when carried between rooms. Endless packets of freeze dried noodles because she hated cooking. Pillowslips wafting that brine smell of her.
“Well?” Amy said. “I’m not standing out here until malaria from mosquito bites.”
I asked if she’d noticed anything during the night. Did memories have a smell? Did she hear them breezing past? Passing side by side with cinders flaming orange, then fragmenting. Did she sense something changing the way people with arthritic joints sensed storms breaking below horizons?
Amy combed fingers through hair off her face so it bobbed over the crown of her head. Always loved that, her shoulders rounding away and curve of ribs.
“Still don’t know why you’re here. Is there a reason?”
“I made us a new future,” I said. “It’s not a second storey added on with a new car. No tickets to Paris. But I got rid of our past. Everything that was wrong. Burned it all. Turned it into charcoal. Didn’t you smell it?” I pointed back the way I’d come. Was sure I smelt smoke the way I noticed a scent of rain before showers swept in. Amy appeared expressionless, how she looked sleeping on her back until one of the bad dreams she complained about flickered eyelids.
“You what?” For the first time Amy looked as if she didn’t want me to leave. She took a step towards me, so that I noticed a stain on her top and black eye makeup. “What’d you do?”
I told her it shouldn’t need explaining. She could wait for the easterly wind to start blowing again in the morning, skidding the remains of smoke haze through gaps in her windows. Then she’d realise it wasn’t the smell of scrublands igniting again at the height of another summer. It wasn’t slabs of meat being smoked from four properties away or another dying orchard going up after being doused in petrol. That was our unhappy past erasing so nothing remained and everything could start again.
“So you burnt the place down?”
“And now I’m here. Back with you.” I opened my arms to her. I’d done that so many times. She used to run to me, bare feet thudding over our cracked back garden path, steps landing across matted grass. Through doorways. Sloshing in water that time rains seemed ceaseless. Now she stood six steps from me. Wished for her to fall tangling into me so I’d wrap her, palms flat against her back so her exhaling swelled into the hollows of my hands.
After a few seconds I dropped arms heavily. Said to Amy I’d take her to the fire. So she could see how much I meant what I said. The ashes of our old lives now scattered across the plain of extinct volcanoes, caught in the bending trunks of trees, black specks floating in the river’s stagnant waters. Amy went to cry, shoulders heaving but she straightened. I’d once told her our lives were perfect. I’d clutched her in bed at the time, so tightly she throatily muttered I hurt her. Our perfection was her laughter channeling from her chest to mine, twining her legs around my hips on the couch, intensity when writing poetry before tearing it up and our love for countries we yearned to visit.
“So now we can start again,” I said. “Even the day you left. That’s burnt too. Gone. That day doesn’t exist anymore.”
We stood in the chilling air. When I first moved out here I’d seen how bright the stars were. How on nights when there was no heat or smoke haze it was possible to see a line of diffused light on the horizon, where the next town was. But I’d stopped noticing now.
“Take me back Amy,” I said softly. “We don’t have to be held back by problems that don’t exist anymore. Come with me.”
“They’ll be going through the wreckage of the house,” Amy said. “Poking around, looking for a body. Did you think of how upsetting that is for them? You should go back and tell them you’re fine. They’ll come here anyway. Trying to find you.”
“It’ll take five minutes for them to realise I wasn’t in there. Only bones they’ll find will be stray cats hiding under the house. No one’s going to need counseling because a house burns down with the only lives lost a couple of indoor plants.”
Amy shook her head. I’d seen that before. The first time I asked if any money was left. Second when I pleaded with her not to leave. Barely an hour before that I’d watched her loop a bra over arms, dragging it into place. She’d turned her back, asking me to fasten it. The cobbled line of her spine flexed under my hands. I’d hooked it into place as she inhaled. So often she’d turned, smiling at me after that. I’d loved her thin bones and frailty.
“Please stop,” Amy said. “You must be insane to burn down the house. I don’t understand. How could you?”
I said I had nowhere to go tonight. Aside from sleeping across the car’s back seat. Or forcing my way into one of the abandoned houses where an orchard used to be. Again I asked her to take me back. Ribbons of steam hazed with each word.
I knew the answer before she spoke it. Amy hadn’t said no to me often. Even admitted she found it difficult. Because I spent entire days trying to wrest a crop from those soils slowly eroding away she usually felt guilty saying no. Amy told me she thought she had to agree to everything. The breed of dog we bought before it ran off. Type of alcohol we drank. Color of roses before we gave up watering them. Design of the antique chair I later smashed in rage. Now I talked over the top of her telling me no. Drowned it out even though I lip read it. Promised we’d make proper plans this time. Find work. I was prepared to start small. Toil on shifts as a kitchen hand or cut sandwiches. Amy could sell clothes. I knew she loved them. When we first went out I’d noticed her standing before a full length mirror, examining herself, smoothing tops down over her slight belly.
“We’re finished,” Amy said. I saw how she gathered herself to say that and how much it took out of her. “We’ll be divorced in a year or so. That’s when my life starts over.”
Amy turned back into the house. The door closed on the light pooling around her feet. She’d left me for the second time. I stood motionless. Ground felt cold, chilling up to knees as if I waited in a rising tide. I thought she’d return. Take me in, warm me crammed to her ribs, smother me in her small muscles.
I returned to the car. Air was cold now, inside me as if I weighed more. I drove out to the river, its banks snaking through country like trenches left behind after war. The caravan park was closed. Someone called in before long weekends, reaching a broom up onto caravans, rasping away cobwebs and bird shit before tourists arrived. Not that many tourists visited. Since there was no fishing and the museum closed few people came. Maybe a couple of gold prospectors and brooding men sprawling around binge drinking.
I broke into the second van. It seemed less rusted in the dark. Pressed my foot to the bottom of the door and it splintered open. Security wasn’t a priority here. Nothing to steal except a few knives and forks. Pushed inside. No electricity. Let water run, pattering hollowly into the metal sink before drinking directly from the tap. It tasted of dust I swallowed during windstorms. Folded down the bed and it screeched into place. Lay in darkness as if I’d been buried underground.
I couldn’t see back towards Amy’s place. Maybe she left the outside light on in case I’d return. That’s what I did for her the day she left. Turned all the hall lights on to guide her barefoot steps back to me. I’d expected her to pad through the house that night, sheepishly return to our bed, apologizing into my back so I felt her breath between words. Now cold surrounded me as if I slept outside. Even though I burned our past, in that caravan I returned to it. The long furrows through soil, peep of corn germinating above earth before dying from the tip down. Amy saying enough, the place is killing us. My comfort in scotch so that I finished every night grasping furniture to steady myself and started each day sick. Amy begging me to consider moving away but instead my blundering outside plowing, replanting, scattering fertilizer that whipped up during dust devils. Amy hysterical, shouting she couldn’t take it anymore, writhing in my arms as I bear hugged to stop her leaving. But she left anyway. Her brother came up from the city, helping her move into the new place. Then he visited me. When I offered my hand to shake he said stay the fuck away.
I woke early. Always did. Before sunrise it was as if I’d become colorblind. Dragged the caravan door shut behind me so it shuddered into the frame. I drove away towards our house, taking the detour that went around town before turning off past the petrol station glinting silver under fluorescents. Smoking beams of wood piled together. A car I didn’t recognize parked outside so kept my distance.
I imagined Amy in the kitchen before I burned it down, standing where cold air puffed from the fridge every time the door opened. Standing next to the window I always spotted cool changes through, cloud rearing up from horizons. Thought of her there, head dipping and lifting as she stirred noodles.
I lingered until someone stepped awkwardly from the ruins, pausing and looking in my direction. Then I slid my foot off the brake, gliding the car back onto road. I sped up, white noise of bitumen filling the car. Ahead lay the turnoff into town, passing the abandoned church, the line of gum trees with small white crosses tilting under them and Amy’s house. Further on the light of the next town glowed into skies, as if there had to be something better there.
Most nights Peter Farrar can be found writing, eyes bloodshot from trying to add one more paragraph when he should be in bed. He can't build anything, doesn't read maps well, is reckless with money, has a drinking problem and dresses badly. Writing is his only hope really.