The Enemy Comes to the Gates Bearing Fire

    --- Canberra, 18 January, 2003 ---

At first a hot dry summer day, a day
like any other, the air a solid wall
of heat that slammed us when we stepped outside,
then drove us back in fast retreat to shade
inside the house -- a day like any other save
for rising winds, and smoke that hung
in off-white shrouds and hid the distant hills,
crept under doors shut tight against the warmth,
and spread a biting tang -- the acrid oil
of eucalypt half-burnt, that reddened eyes,
spoilt food and scraped our tender throats.

As morning ended, smoky furnace-blasts
arrived. It softened solid roads like wax,
and mist morphed into dark-brown fog,
a formless beast that tore and gouged at lungs;
beyond the town the fires ran free, poured down
the mountain slopes in orange flood. They leapt
across the grey-green treetops, sparked wide tides
of windblown leaves that tumbled through the air
and flared like matches, flew for miles, red flags
that signalled wildfire's fury with the world...

Fire-driven storm, now conflagration,
descended from a darkening sky, befouled
the air and choked the city's afternoon;
it brought more heat, but quickly killed the light
when powerlines fell: the sun, smoke-blocked, had fled
the scene in haste. Untimely blackness reigned;
fire-engines' sirens screamed like banshees, pierced
through murk where headlights barely lit packed roads,
and only made the darkness seem more visible.

And on that day of fear and ash, a day
that started much like any summer day,
flames sprang up, rose in blood-red gouts of sparks
from burning homes, sturdy houses built to last
in Canberra's safe, complacent urban plan;
and birds fell dead upon our neat back lawn
from poisoned skies, while dogs sought unsure refuge
behind our hosed-down walls. We stayed, like them,
and gambled that the fire would pass us by --
the Lord be thanked for looking after fools.

┬ęDavid Nourse 2010


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