Bullets by Joanne Anderton

It had once been a sheep, and it wasn’t dead yet. A mangle of smouldering wool, scorched skin, and cooked meat, breathing in puffs of hot ash. Outrun by flames, tangled in underbrush, or crushed beneath a falling tree, who could tell? Everything was charcoal now.

I pull the mask from my nose and mouth and breathe the warm smoke in. Load the rifle, aim between what’s left of the poor thing’s ear and eye, and give it peace with the slow squeeze of the trigger. Try to ignore the shakes, the tears stinging my eyes. I’m soaked in sweat and covered in ash, but supposed to be grateful that I’m still alive. At this point, it’s hard to even give a shit that the house is still standing.

Thank god, mum. We thought you were a gorner this time.

Yeah, real fucking lucky.

This is not the way it was meant to be. Killing stock on my own with the sky still red.

Something rustles in the ash, the distinctive kick of dying feet and the moan of a painful breath. I pull the mask up and head for the sound. It’s hard to breathe through the surgical cloth but it eases the coughing at the end of the day. Winding my way through split, black gumtrees and simmering hubs of still-glowing embers, I dig in my bag for more bullets. It’s difficult with the thick gloves on, my fingers slip and pinch through empty cardboard boxes.

The ground is uneven. I trip on a crumbling stump, clutch at a fragile branch that cracks in my grip, and almost fall on top of them.

A whole bloody herd.

“Shit.”

They’re clustered together, so close in places I can’t tell one corpse from the other. Ten of them, maybe more. Even with their sleek fur all charred and their long manes burned away, there’s a wildness about them that tells me these aren’t my horses. They lie in a way that makes them look like they’re still running. Legs bent and heads tossed back. Free things. Brumbies.

“Shit.” What else is there to say?

Then one of them moves. It kicks at the ash with blackened hooves, it breathes and it whinnies and I’m running over to it, jumping the bodies of its brothers and sisters in my haste. Poor thing can’t be still alive. Its skin is hard and cracked like stone, but still its great barrel of a chest rises and falls in fast, jittery motions. Its lips are shrivelled back to reveal great white teeth that clench and clack.

“I’m so sorry.” I scramble for bullets but all I find are empty boxes. “Shit!” Nothing. My bag is empty, my gun too. I’m standing here watching this beautiful creature die slowly, painfully, and I’ve run out of fucking bullets?

Its breathing is violent now, all four legs spasming, neck shaking. I take a shaking step back, whispering pathetic apologies under my breath.

Then the creature splits in half, cleanly down the middle.

And a naked young man falls out.

***

His skin is piebald, his eyes are blue, his hair is long and always tangled with burrs no matter how often I brush it out. He is very strong, but eager to please. Sometimes, he is too hot to touch. If he holds a piece of paper too long, it will catch on fire, but he doesn’t get burned. The flames just dance on the white and grey patterns across his palm.

I gave him water to drink when I first got him home, and wiped the ash from his body with a damp cloth. He steamed, the scent reminding me of my husband on a hot day, and the stables on a humid night, human and animal, flesh and grass both.

For a long time, I just stared at him. He stood tireless in my kitchen, naked and silent. Watching me in turn. But I couldn’t stand there doing nothing forever, and as soon as I moved, he followed.

He doesn’t speak, at least not that I have heard. But I’m accustomed to silence.

Why don’t you sell up and buy a place in town? You must be lonely. And we worry about you mum, all alone out there. Something could happen to you, and no one would know.

I’ve never felt alone out here. Not even after Mark died.

It started with the fence around the house. Thing was a mangled wreck from the flames, posts gone, wire tangled and useless. Just goes to show how close the fire came. He watched me dragging wood for new posts, straightening coils of wire from the shed. It was odd, I won’t deny that, to be hammering posts into the earth with a naked man by my side, focused on my every move. But not as odd as leaving a fence unmended. Only took two, maybe three, before he seized the sledgehammer from me and set to work. He didn’t so much as pause for a breath until the fence was complete.

The pale patches on his skin don’t burn in the sun. He does start spot fires though, around his feet, if I’m not careful.

After the fence he just turned to me, expectant. It was nearly night by then, so I led him back inside. Gave him more water. Vegemite sandwiches. I fished out some of Mark’s old clothes from the boxes I keep them in –

It’s not healthy, mum. They’re just collecting dust. You’ve got to start letting go.

–  But quickly worked out clothes weren’t a good idea on him. Wasn’t wearing them an hour before they started to smoke.

He’s good at the manual stuff, the things Mark used to do. The chopping and the digging and the lifting. He reminds me of my husband sometimes more than I’d like to admit, in his silence, his maleness, the strength of his youthful body. I remember muscles like those, the way they felt beneath my hands, his warmth a furnace against me.

Together, we emptied the shed so he could sleep on the cool cement floor. Every evening, I comb the burrs from his hair. Every morning they’ve returned.

***

I lock him in the shed as a plume of dust heralds the arrival of an ancient, battered Ute. The bloke that steps down from the vehicle is just as ancient – stooped back, wiry frame, leather skin. Old Jimmy, my closest neighbour and a good twenty-minute drive away. He leans back with an audible crack, tips the notched edge of his lanky, grey Akubra and says, “You were lucky, missy.”

No matter how old I get, this man will always call me missy. Doesn’t matter that I was married for forty years before Mark’s death, either.

“The Collins’ lost the house, but they were evacuated so at least no one got hurt.” He inspects the damage even as he rambles. Usually, I’m expected to bring tea and some kind of cake when he appears. It’s the way things are done. This time, I just watch him shuffle. “Way too much stock lost, that’s the real problem.” He’s taking in the mended fence, the cleared firebreak, the larger trees chopped and stacked in neat piles, and I know he’s wondering how this little missy – who came to this place as a young and silly thing in love, and who’d never worked a farm before in her life – could have done so much clearing up in only a couple of days.

“I know,” I say. “I had to shoot a lot of sheep. I ran out of bullets.” It’s a long drive into town to replenish them too.

He mumbles something about head of cattle, and acts of god, but I don’t listen. I don’t like the way he keeps using the word luck. He thinks I got off easy. He doesn’t think that’s fair.

When he finally leaves, I wait for the dust to settle completely before I unlock the shed.

He steps out into the sun and sniffs the air like an animal. I wonder what he makes of the lingering scent of old tobacco and cracked leather. He seems distracted all afternoon, even restless as I brush his hair. His fingers beat a quick tattoo on my bare knee. I wonder if he didn’t appreciate being locked in the shed, or if he did not like the presence of another man.

But then she steps out of the smoke-haze of the dim, twilight bush.

She is not piebald, and she is not large and strong. She is short, and timid, her skin an even olive-tone, eyes wide and darting. She leaves tiny grass fires in her wake.

If he was a brumby before the fire, then I can only think she must have been a wallaby.

She’s good with her hands. The shed with the generator was knocked out early on, damaged but not razed. It only takes a moment of my tinkering for her to get the idea. Sooner than I could believe possible she’s up to her elbows in machinery. Two days later, and the lights are on. I don’t even know where she got the parts.

Wallaby is only the beginning.

They come as a trickle at first, and usually in the twilight, when the remnant smoke obscures their passage and the world is both day and night. I open the shed to them all, and their heat, their dripping flame. My wild horse moves into the house. He sleeps on the ensuite tiles, right by my bedroom door.

Short stocky wombat digs a new vegetable patch, while skinny lamb helps lay irrigation. My wild horse and a thickly set bull drag what’s left of the pump out of the dam, which wallaby immediately sets to repairing. An emu girl with long legs, long arms, and sharp eyes rebuilds my clothesline.

I follow them around with the kitchen fire extinguisher and wet towels. I plant the first seedlings myself, with my own cool fingers, and fertilise them with ash.

***

The first new fire starts a fortnight since the big one. Takes out a stockyard on the large station on the other side of town, and a poor penned-in flock unable to escape. It’s small, because there’s not much left to burn, so I suppose you have to be thankful of that.

“Thing is,” the old Jimmy drawls, as he sips his tea and takes in my quickly growing veggie patch with ogling eyes. “They reckon it was deliberately lit.”

I suck a sharp breath. “Who could be so stupid?” He’s not allowed inside the house, where my brumby waits perched on the edge of the bathtub for him to leave.

“Dunno if I agree,” he says. “Electrical storm that night, could as easily been that. No rain, lightning strike. Not the first one I’ve seen.” He gazes with longing at the empty table. The tea’s weak and there’s no cake.

“I have to go into town,” I say.

“Been too busy to do any baking, I imagine.”

I don’t answer. I will have to go, soon. My pantry is bare, the children who shuffle restless and sparking inside the locked shed are getting hungry. But I dread the thought.

How can I leave him?

That afternoon five sheep women appear at the fence. They shiver and flame and mew, not taking to the garden or the chores. All they do is huddle in a tight fearful knot. I set up sprinklers at their feet to douse the flames, because they will not be coaxed into the shed.

Maybe it is their sounds that wake me. I drag myself from my light sheets. The fan beats a regular drum above my head, slow and peaceful like imaginary rain. A few bleary steps to the window, and I look out.

My fire children aren’t sleeping on the cool cement like I expected. Instead, they surround the shivering sheep women, and seem to be assessing them. A tight ring of scrutiny and fizzling fire. Don’t know what they’re looking for, or what decides them, but the decision is palpable. The sheep can’t stay. Slowly, like a fiery tide, the children push the sheep out of the yard. There is no violence in the action, just pressure. The sheep women trip and stumble back. They bleat and beg, but are ignored.

“What – ?” I reach a hand out of the open window, open my mouth to call them. What are they doing?

Then he is there. He places a damp hand on my arm. He’s dripping water from the tap. It’s already starting to steam but for now, he is cool enough to touch. He wraps strong arms around my shoulders, soaking my nightie until it clings to my flushed skin. I can’t help myself, and lean back against him. He smells like horse and man.

The sheep are pushed over the fence and out into the bush. The others glance at the house, for only an instant, before following.

My wild horse turns me away from the window, and takes me back to bed. He lies me down and rests beside me, his face so close to mine, arm draped across my chest. I realise he’s run himself a bath of cold water, and he rises from the bed to dip his body into it, so the mattress does not catch alight. I lie between the cool wet sheets and the hot weight of his body and call him Mark, because I do not know his true name.

The next morning there are tiny singes on the sheets, small and round like cigarette burns. The children are up and already making repairs with the first light, and there is no hint that the sheep were ever here.

***

You okay, mum? Haven’t heard from you in ages. Give us a call when you get this, won’t you?

Love you.

Today I have to go into town. I haven’t had a proper meal in two days, and there’s no fucking toilet paper. It’s the loo paper that clinches it, really. There are just some things you can’t go without.

I put a stop to work on an array of solar panels that are springing up on my roof, so I can lock the fire children in the shed. Everyone. Even him. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Two calves and a whole clutch of rabbits have arrived over the past few days. Most of them sit with their knees drawn up, silent eyes resentful as I close the door. My wild horse just stands, in the centre, and watches me.

Takes three goes to start the car. The drive to town through ruined roads and blackened bush is surreal. I almost lose my way twice. Nothing looks the same. It’s quiet in town. Seems the fire spread this far, further than I’d realised. Two houses on the edge flattened. A general heaviness in the air that has nothing to do with smoke. There’s fewer cars parked on the curb, fewer people drinking out the front of the pub. I tug my hat down low, shake my sleeves loose so they cover my arms, nod to old Jimmy with a VB in his hand and head into the IGA.

Aircon hits me like a fist in the chest. Awful stuff. I gather as fast I can. Toilet paper. White bread. Vegemite.

“Judy?”

Damn it.

“It is! Judy, thank goodness.”

I turn and paste on the smile.

Karen runs the supply and antiques. She sells farm equipment, old and new. The shiny and useful stuff that come with warrantees, and the rusty things teetering between valuable collectible and useless junk.

“G’day.” I shift my grip on the basket. Her eyes are taking everything in, from the mud on my boots to the five jars of vegemite and the small tower of bread. “How’d you fare, Karen?”

She nods. Short cropped hair grey at the roots, flowers on her shirt, long nails painted red. “Did okay, did okay. Got to the backyard fence but didn’t get much further. Others ain’t so lucky.” A pause. “You?”

“House still standing,” I say.

“Better that that!” she says, and my stomach drops. Here it comes. “Heard you were doing much better than that! Jimmy says the place is looking spic and span, like back when Mark was alive.”

I knew the old bastard had been gossiping. They always do.

“Who’ve you got working for you?” Young Anthony, with his two scrawny girls loitering at his feet, reaches past me to grab the milk. Doesn’t meet my eye. His lips are pressed into a sour line. “If you found some good help you should send them round. Share the love, Judy.”

I mumble something and push on, not really paying much attention to what I throw into the basket now. It’s always the way. Doesn’t matter how remote you are or how small a thing, these people will know about it.

But Karen can’t leave well enough alone. “Not everyone’s so lucky,” she says. Doesn’t seem to be actually buying anything, just buzzing like a fly around my head. “There’s been more fires, you know? Not out where you are, but closer to town. Every couple of nights, one flares up. Can’t tell where it will hit. No rhyme or reason. The Davidson’s lost a silo. The Marson’s shearing shed went up in a blaze. People are scared, Judy.”

I remember what Jimmy said about lightning strikes. “Deliberately lit?” I ask.

“Not everyone’s got time to be planting lettuce, you know. Cops have even been called.”

The girl on the register is young, surly, and pierced. She won’t stay round this place for long. When I hand her the money, she notices the burns on my wrist.

“Shit,” she hisses. “Did you get caught in the fire?”

I shake my arm so the sleeves cover them. “I’m fine.”

The burns were an accident, of course. My brumby can’t help the fire within him, and no amount of water will keep him cool for long.

“Think you should see a doctor for that,” the girl says, as she dumps coins into my hands.

“She’ll be right.” I try another smile. Not sure it works.

Karen follows me to the car. “You sure, Judy?” No longer a busybody, she actually sounds like she cares. I remember the bad days, years ago, when it looked like the drought would never let up. Her son in law – what was his name again? – hung himself when they couldn’t pay the bills. I held her hand but she wouldn’t cry.

Mark refused to go to the funeral. He just muttered darkly, about people who were too weak to live on the land, and drank too much. Some nights I’d have to lock myself in the bathroom.

Country women are supposed to stick together. If we don’t look after each other, who will?

But I can’t tell her about my brumby, can I?

“Of course I am.” I throw the groceries in the boot. “Been doing this on my own for long enough. I know what I can take.”

She nods, and her face is pinched and squinting. “Just be careful, out there. On your own.”

We worry about you, mum. Out there all on your own.

I hesitate. “Actually,” I say, as she turns to go. “There is something you could do for me.”

A smile.

“Could you open the shop for a moment? I’m out of bullets.”

I arrive home in the twilight, and the shed door is wide open. My children wait by the side of the road, features hidden in shadow and eyes reflecting the glow of the headlights. They escort me through the gate, back to the carport. Isolated spot fires crackle in the lawn.

I make them sandwiches all night, because I can’t bring myself to sleep.

***

I wake to the smell of smoke in the distance, the smudge of red on the horizon. His weight on me is hot and comforting but crushing the air from my lungs, both at once. I try to move but he holds my arms and kisses my face and it burns, but I kiss him back.

“Mark,” I call him, as the smoke wafts in through the open window.

It’s just not safe anymore! We have a granny flat out back. It’s quiet here, you won’t even hear the traffic. Kate’ll come pick you up. Please mum, think about it?

In the dawn the fire children return, climbing the fence, not even trying to hide. They’ve brought more with them – black cockatoos with red coloured streaks in their long dark hair. They screech and they scream as they tear down the old gums in the back paddock, bare hands stronger than chainsaw or axe.

Every night, before he takes me to bed, I watch them climb the fence and leave. Every morning the scent of smoke carries the promise of death in it, and loss, as they return.

Cops come to the door and I can barely face them. No way there’d be an arsonist round here. Fire’s not a toy round here.

“Worst season we’ve ever seen,” the older of the two looks grave, serious. “Freak grassfire got out of control last night, took out the caravan park. You know the one by the river, just outa town? Killed an old lady, pensioner, all on her own.” He glances around. “You best be careful too.”

“Nice place you’ve got, Missus.” The young cop, hardly a man, shields his eyes with the flat of his hand as surveys the garden, the new water tank, the solar panels, the extension out back. “Can’t imagine you looking after it all by yourself.”

The cops don’t see the children, hidden in the shadows of the still-blackened bush, eyes like embers.

They bleed out into the sunlight as the cops leave. Standing on the verandah, I survey them all. “That’s enough,” I whisper, and the bush is silent. “You have to go.”

The fire children stare at me with no indication that they have understood.

“You have to stop doing this! Stop working here, I don’t need you any more. Stop lighting fires, you’re hurting people. We’re done, that’s enough. Thank you. Now go.”

They pay me no mind, and return to work.

His hands on my arms are hot and dry. They burn right through to the skin. “Tell them they have to go!” I cry, as he turns me around and guides me inside.

He holds me, because it is what I need of him. The children fill my yard and clutter the house and work hard, and it has not been this way for so many years. But as I lie beneath his weight and smell smoke, I cannot help but think of the price.

***

I draw the rifle from its locked case, and gather my replenished ammunition. I pull on my gloves and my boots, tuck the mask in my pocket, take water and a vegemite sandwich. This is the way I have always done it, for many summers. At first, with Mark, who first taught me how to shoot. And recently, all alone.

The fire children do not seem to notice me leave, do not so much as pause in their work. The rabbits have started making an inground pool.

Enough is enough.

Only my wild horse watches, from the bedroom window, as I set out. I do not look back.

Their bodies are not as hard to find as I suspected. Perhaps that’s the way it works, perhaps they need to be close.

The cockatoos are little more than puffs of ash and feathers, twitching with weakened breaths. Almost seems a pity to waste a bullet on them. The rabbits weren’t wild. They were white and fat and obviously someone’s precious pet, back legs kicking feebly. One by one, I put them out of their misery. Wallaby. Wombat. Emu. Cattle. Goat. A couple of dogs, a single cat. Even a lizard or two. Bullet between the eyes and ears, quick, clean, honed from years of practice.

Finally, I return to the brumby herd.

It’s not safe there, all alone. Aren’t you lonely, mum? Aren’t you just a little bit scared?

I was never lonely out here.

When I return, the house is empty and quiet again. I lie on sheets still faintly damp and cradle the single remaining bullet in my hand.