by Reece Pye
He keeps his eyes on it even though he is driving, that smooth grey crest protruding from the earth like an ancient monolith. He does this because he doesn’t need to see the road he’s driving down; he’s been down it so many times now that it has become something more than second nature to him. Ethereal, almost, the unnatural smoothness of the asphalt. So long as he can feel it beneath him, he knows he doesn’t need to look ahead, keeping his gaze directed towards the northeast side of his dirt-caked windshield. He watches as the grey slowly begins to dissolve into expanding patches of dark green, then progressively lighter green, until he can make out the blackened trees poking up from the furthest side of the mountain like bristles. Seconds later he can hear the tyres spitting out stones as the road transitions to gravel, and still without looking ahead he makes the turn, drives up the steep and narrow slope, makes a sharp right, before parking in the same spot he always does—whenever he finds it within himself to come back here.
As he turns off the engine and glances around to check if there are any other cars or people, he is relieved to find there aren’t. Not today. If it were a bright spring day, maybe there would be. Even then, he’s not sure. But for him, it’s always the same day, same time, no matter the state of the weather. Wind, rain or shine, here he comes. Today it is slightly overcast, with just a hint of sunlight peering out through the enormous congregation of clouds hovering overhead, towards the far east. He wonders whether they will have passed by the time he reaches the top. Turning the rear-view mirror on himself, he runs a hand over his chin to make sure it is clear of any grey stubble, then knowing he doesn’t need them, he carefully removes his glasses and tucks them away into the glovebox. As the days go by, he finds himself spending more and more time lamenting each new wrinkle he’s convinced has appeared on his forehead or under his sagging eyes each morning. Knowing there is nothing he can do about the lines on his face, he steps out of the car.
There is a mild breeze in the air as he closes the door behind him, he doesn’t bother to lock the car, he isn’t entirely sure if he will return. He knows somewhere in the back of his mind that he will, even if there will always be part of him that doesn’t want to, that nearly convinces him he doesn’t deserve to. He looks up at the towering trees that stand before him on either side of the entrance to the track, then over at the barbecue and toilet block to his left on the rise just beyond the parking area. He can’t remember the last time he’d seen a family over there, sitting at the table, eating, laughing, revelling in each other’s company like families used to do. Back when he wasn’t old enough to take such precious things for granted.
As he makes his way over to the track, he is aware he is about to be met with two signs, one on either side of the path. The one to his left, the one he invariably turns to as he nears, reads: ‘MT. CANNIBAL FLORA AND FAUNA RESERVE. 50-MINUTE WALK.’ Beneath it is a map that he only looks at out of habit. He knows precisely which way to walk, and exactly how long it will take him. As for the sign to his right, he ignores it completely. Pretends it isn’t there. He remembers the first time he came back to find that it was erected, and to this day he can still recall exactly what it says, almost verbatim. No need to read it again. So it is that he keeps his eyes firmly fixed ahead as he takes that first step forward, then the next, until the signs of civilisation are forgotten behind him, and all he can hear is the grinding of his feet as he ascends the slope towards the gum tree where the track disperses.
In front of the tree is a wooden sign, nothing more than a horizontal plank with arrows carved on each end. Left and right. He already knows which way to go—right. Not only does this way take longer, but there are no manmade steps this way, and the terrain is more jagged, unpredictable. Perhaps not so gruelling for someone younger and fitter, but for him it is exactly what is needed. He must fight his way to the top before he can earn the right to come back down, otherwise it is all for nothing. Absurd as he knows it to be, it is the only thing that gets him through each time.
The trail is narrow and winding for the first ten or so minutes, by which point he already finds himself gasping for breath. Smoker’s lungs. Despite trying to quit on-and-off for the last fifteen years, he has now resigned himself to the belief that it doesn’t really matter anymore. He is old, and besides, surely whatever fate this lifelong habit eventually has in store for him is only the faintest taste of what he managed to avoid all those years ago. So, on he goes, up the winding trail of the mountain, stopping occasionally to catch his breath and wipe the sweat off his burning forehead. He listens to the echoes of the birds in the trees that surround him, tall and majestic, the fragmented rays of sun reaching down through their peaks and dancing among those huge swaying branches. He knows most of them have only been around for about as long as he’s been coming here, and each time he returns, he cranes his neck that little bit more so he can survey their incremental growth, year after year.
Approaching the bend where the trail begins to zigzag up and around to the other side of the mountain, he recognises the old bench, welded into a small crevice in the rock so that people may sit and gaze out across the city that sketches itself along the distant horizon. He can only imagine what the view must be like at night, all those lights twinkling across the skyline for kilometres on end. After all the time that has passed since he first returned some twenty-five years ago, he believes he has a fairly accurate idea of exactly where his house lies, in amongst that starry grid, though not once has he ever permitted himself to sit down on that bench. Until the day comes that he has no other choice but to give himself even a momentary respite from it all, he knows he must carry on. Before he knows it, he is clambering over roots, steadying himself as he presses on along the steepest incline of the trail, refusing to give in to the implacable forces of nature.
By the time he finally clears the bend and the trail levels out again on the northern side of the mountain, he is sweating so profusely that he stops and undoes a couple of the buttons on his chequered shirt, running a hand over the back of his head to wipe away the excess sweat. The sole advantage of being in the latter stages of balding is that his scalp isn’t completely drenched like it used to be—particularly on the hotter days. Now it doesn’t matter what the temperature is—hasn’t for the last five or so years—and he takes great solace in the fact that the path ahead now is relatively straightforward. The way down is always easier. Usually.
Along this final stretch of the trail are trees that scatter themselves haphazardly down the north slope of the mountain. There are noticeably fewer on this side than there are on the other, even though they are far more abundant than what they were when he first returned; back when the devastation was still so raw. Of the few original trees that do remain amongst those that have since been replanted, he can still make out some of the charred and blackened debris that has yet to be overruled by nature. Whether it be charred branches, or singed stumps that remain rooted in the hard earth, enduring in utter defiance of all the life that now thrives here, he wonders how much longer it will be before nature succeeds in erasing any and all traces of the hill’s fiery history. Probably not until after he is long gone, he thinks, for he himself is nothing more than a meaningless footnote in time.
As he continues along what is left of the trail, which is even narrower and surrounded on both sides by overgrown bushes that lash his knees with each step, he spots an echidna trying to burrow itself into a shallow hole in the ground just off the beaten path to his left. He stops and watches for a moment, those sharp white spines and their black tips already warding off any would-be predators. How he envies it and any other animal whose greatest defence is to turn its back on its enemies, on the world. If only the same went for him, if only he had some kind of shield with which to protect himself. Yet he knows, deep down in the farthest reaches of his heart, that the struggle lies within himself and nowhere else. And so, he keeps on walking.
Not long to go now.
Five minutes later and he reaches the first outlook, a flat bed of overhanging rock that gives way to an open view of the east, nothing but paddocks and the endless run of the highway, where the cars look and move like the ants scurrying around his boots. He turns his back on the closest thing to civilization there is out here, and on he goes up the trail, knowing that the second lookout is only a few minutes away, and that he won’t bother to stop there, because the third and final lookout is only around the next bend, and provides more-or-less the same view—albeit a much wider and more encompassing one.
The moment he passes the second lookout, and begins to climb the final rise of the hill which leads directly onto the third, the sun emerges from behind the clouds as if on cue, and as he looks up to see it glaring down upon him, feels his heart nearly skip a beat. It’s as if this is his moment of judgement, and he wonders why it has taken so long as he steps over the rise and down into what is easily the largest and flattest bed of terrain across the whole trail. He stands directly before the slanting rockface that overlooks the northern plains and the dirt road that leads into the vast stretch of woodland below. Once he reacquaints himself with the view—which he does every time despite how many times he’s seen it—he drives himself forward, on and on, until he is standing a few feet away from the huge, crooked boulder embedded into the ground. He looks out across the open plains towards the tree line, until his gaze finally comes to rest upon the same spot where it always does.
It rests upon the house that, once upon a time, a quarter of a century ago, was just visible through those trees, when they were far less in number. Before the land had been scorched black and the inferno raged through the once budding forest, leaving no way for her to make it out with their newborn daughter before the flames began to lick at the borders of their property, trapping them in. Not that there was anything he could have done, seeing as he was already too far from home fighting the blaze where it first began to sweep across the countryside like some biblical plague. And at midday, by the time he did become aware of just how far it had spread to all corners of the state, he knew there was nothing that could be done by the time he made it home.
Only this didn’t stop him, for when he arrived on the scene to witness the full extent of the inferno, the smoke was so dense in every direction that he could barely make out the flames creeping up along the mountain towards the sky. Yet he knew he’d no other choice but to leave his mates behind so that he could make sure they had made it out. It didn’t matter how much his closest friend had urged him to stay, how he’d explained that it was too dangerous to go any further until the fire was stopped at the mountain, he had still pressed on. Even though the ground was already ash and dust, singeing his boots, columns of smoke blowing all around him and the flames dancing from afar, as if to say that their job was already done.
So it was. Well before he saw how dead those trees were ahead of him, stripped bare to their blackened trunks, he knew fate had already taken its course in spite of him. Even if he couldn’t accept it in that moment as he fell to his knees, partly out of despair but mostly out of sheer exhaustion, he could go no further into the thickening smoke. Weeping as his best mate dragged him back to the truck and told him to stay put while he went back up the mountain to help the rest of them combat the very face of hell itself, the only thing on earth that could turn day to night in the blink of an eye. All while he sat there thinking only of how much he yearned to go back, to push on the rest of the way just so he could know, unequivocally, that his worst fears hadn’t come true.
The only thing that kept him from going back was his own fear, that crippling hopelessness he couldn’t shake from his paralytic body as he waited for the men to come back down the mountain again. And many of them did, eventually, except for the one who’d saved him. He perished along with the others, all of whom were more than likely engulfed by the barrage of smoke as they battled their way up the hill. He can’t bear to imagine it, nor the fact that their lives have now been reduced to nothing more than statistics. No matter the truth of it, fire tends to leave little room for evidence—this is the one thing he understands more than anything, after more than thirty years, from the time he began until the time he retired almost a decade ago.
Eventually he’d become sick of being called a hero by some halfwit at the pub, and before long it drove him mad just hearing the word. And despite the cruel irony of it, the only thing that has ever helped is to come back each year and see it all for himself again. Remember the days when he used to come here with her before they were married and had decided to start a family. How they’d already had their first—and only—by the time he finally mustered up the courage to propose. How they used to come here most weekends for a picnic, or a barbecue, or even drinks late on a Friday or Saturday night, back when they were young enough not to share a care in the world.
He retrieves the single cigarette from his breast pocket, a luxury he only allows himself to indulge once he’s made it to this very spot, then under the scrutinising glare of the sun, he raises the lighter to his mouth and strikes. As he takes that first cathartic drag, exhaling through his nostrils and watching as the smoke evaporates into nothing, he knows that in a world where time happens to be the greatest commodity of all, it is important never to take for granted one’s ability to stand back and take a breath of fresh air from time to time.