I PLACE my papers on the lectern and clear my throat. I take a deep breath and speak.
"I didn't know him long. Only a couple of weeks . . ."
I COULD see him now. He stares at the ground, resigned. His figure framed by a seared gothic forest. The sun accentuated thinning white hair that rises from a veneer of weathered crimson skin. Exhausted denim overalls sag from his slumped shoulders. Red, white and blue.
"Sorry 'bout the fires. Couldn't help those," he said.
"Can't be helped," I reply.
"Was bad up here. Fought it off at me back door." He swung his arms from side to side as gnarled hands grasped an imaginary hose and sprayed invisible water at transparent flames.
"Not the worst I seen though."
"Must've been scary?"
A reluctant smile slips across his slips.
"Quite a show, I reckon."
"A show? How do you mean?"
"All the flames and flashin' lights. Had a front row seat to somethin' you didn't wanna see. Otherwise . . ." He trailed off.
MY thoughts disappear into the scorched terrain. Flashes of red and orange. A roar. The smell of pungent smoke tinged with fresh eucalypt. The blaze is a dancer. Exotic. A flaming poi twirls in a fiery vortex that entices mesmerised trees. Twisted branches spin like twirled fire staffs. Faster and faster, hand-over-hand until the flames blur into one. The baton is hurled deeper into the bush as the fire's insatiable appetite devours obsequious scrub. It blasts an arc of flame across the night sky like a fire-eater's breath. Chaos unleashed; a deft display of unbridled anarchy. Sirens and followspots chase the flames as an ambush of tigers arrive. They bound into the centre ring to jump through flaming hoops. With burnt orange coats and sooty smears as stripes, they growl with displeasure at the flames and slash at the inferno with a swipe of fire-hose claws.
"SO whaddya think?"
He stared straight through me. Silence. Nothing moved. No sound. Not even the mechanical rasp of a cicada. I remember the ad in the paper. The property seemed like a good buy to me. The house wasn't much. Just a run-down fibro shack. It was on a big block though, and it was the land that I wanted. Space for the kids to play and explore, to grow up with nature. I rang the number. He wanted a private sale.
"None of those middlemen," he said. "Come out on Sundee."
THE oily smell of damp charcoal rouses me.
"Lots of space. Otherwise . . ." His sentence trails into the breeze as he points to the house.
"Won't be long and it'll all be green again."
"Regeneration," I reply.
"Something like that." He points to the ground nearby.
"See, grass trees. Xanthorrhoea. They've started already."
The plants look like subterranean extra-terrestrials. They poke their heads from beneath the scorched earth and pepper the landscape adorned with spiky fronds as ceremonial headdress. They cling to a silken string of life and, in a ritual, emerge from the earth to worship a burning star. Flames melt honey resin inside that explodes in a green volcano. Green and gold.
"They'll be living through this longer than me."
I repeat the name. "Xanthorrhoea." It slides off my tongue.
"I'm getting too old for this. That's why I'm gettin' out."
I nod again. "I'm interested."
We stood in silence. Wind whispered into my ears.
"Hasn't been the same up here since John went. Two old bears we were." He trailed off again. "Got no one to leave the place to. Lost contact with everyone after we were disowned. Otherwise . . ." His sentence disappears.
He pointed across the terrain.
"The views aren't what they were. Still it'll come back. Cycles, you know. Won't have to worry about fires for a few years. 'Til the flames rekindle memory."
I nod as if I understand. "As you say, it'll grow back."
"Anyway, it's the last fire I'm gonna fight. Fightin' a different fire now." He poked his stomach. "It's inside now and it's out of control."
"I'm sorry," I replied. There was nothing else I could offer.
"I was talking to this monk. Up at the hospital."
"Yeah. Buddhist. He told me I need to let go of this life. He said I'll never leave. He said I'll come back in another form."
I look across the scorched landscape. The energy of the universe flows across the hills to embrace blackened stumps. All connected. The invisible force twists and tumbles then blends and clashes in my mind. I lose comprehension. The thought evolves to something I can't explain, but can only feel. Like infinity. The higher you count, the further it gets. Elusive, the feeling slips over the horizon beyond sight. Again we stand in silence.
I FINISH my words and rustle my papers from the lectern. I return to an otherwise empty pew to sit beside a man in burgundy and gold. He smiles at me. I smile back. In silence we meditate. Just the two of us, in an otherwise empty chapel.