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We sit on the verandah sofa and watch the smoke-reddened sky darken with the night. My mother has her wool and needles and I have my shells. I scoop them up and let the shells fall between my fingers. I sense her body stiffen beside me and I can tell she is listening again, through the clacking of plastic needles, beyond the whirring of nightjars and the lonely hooting of a boobook, for something else.

‘The yarn bird?’ I ask.

I can taste the smoke, bitter on my tongue. She neither nods nor shakes her head. Her smile is almost serene. I close my eyes so I might hear it too. I think I catch a whisper of it, but it is only the distant hush of waves sighing against the shore. Though the beach lies just past our fence-line beyond the scrub, I’ve been there only a couple of times. Each time alone, and for no longer than a few minutes. Just long enough to pick out a few shells—whelks, cones, limpets, a brittle urchin shell—from the shallow rivulet that runs into the mouth of the cave. Out of bounds, my mother still warns me at least once a week. But only for me. I have heard her easing the screen door open in the early hours when she thinks I am asleep, have watched her stepping out into the grey and disappearing into the arms of the eucalypts.


‘It’s better that we be prepared,’ she says when I wonder out loud if it’s a good idea to be on the road with all this wind and smoke in the air.

It’s the thirty-second day above forty and the sun is a rust-red disc in a sky of smoke. Yet here we are, rattling down the dirt road in the Falcon, on our way to town for supplies. A voice on the radio tells us through a layer of static that if we’re lucky—if the wind keeps blowing from the north-west as it is—the fire might just skirt around us altogether. But my mother knows better than to leave things to chance.

She leans over the steering wheel and squints through the haze at the road, which is strewn with sheets of iron roofing and branches dropped by thirsty gum trees in an effort to save themselves. Every so often the car’s tyres thud over the body of a crow or magpie that’s fallen heat-stricken from the sky.

‘What does it sound like?’ I ask. A hot, bitter wind frets in at my open window.

A song starts up on the radio, and a man sings about hard rain falling and waves that could drown the whole world. My mother murmurs along in her throaty voice. I can’t believe they’re still playing songs like this when the whole world is burning.

‘Mum,’ I say more loudly. ‘The yarn bird. What does it sound like?’

The name for it, whatever it is she listens for, had come to me one morning in the space between sleep and wakefulness, the sky grey with dawn and the air still clear, the tinkling of thornbills breezing in through my bedroom window.

Yarn, for the stories it spins, about what is and what could have been, the secrets it whispers over soft-bellied hills and through the gaps between leaves, picking up the salt smell of the sea as it swoops across waves and up the hill to her, where she sits on the verandah, always listening.

Yarn, too, for the yellow wool of Sissie’s hat, which Mum found too late washed up on the sand at the cave’s edge, after falling asleep with me at her breast, the screen door left unlocked. And for everything she has knitted since and then unravelled, pulling steadily at the single strand of wool until only the initial loop remains, before beginning all over again.

Sometimes when I ask her about the yarn bird her eyes glaze over and she turns quiet or sullen. This time she looks at me with a glint in her eye.

‘Like…the whistle of a tin kettle on a stovetop,’ she says when the song ends. ‘Or the chirruping of cicadas on a summer night.’ Then she shakes her head. ‘No, scrap that. It sounds like a mermaid,’ she says, smiling. ‘A mermaid, singing.’

I hang my arm out the window and try to smile too.

In town, Gerald is standing out the front of his shop, smoking. My mother drives the Falcon to the curb, flicking the indicator on as though there’s still a need for it. The street is dead as the brown snake she put a shovel through that morning. Everyone we know got out days ago.

‘Leaving?’ Gerald asks my mother as she cuts the engine. He drags on his cigarette and breathes smoke into smoke.

Mum shakes her head. ‘Just grabbing a few things.’

‘Last chance, if you want to. Leave, I mean.’ When he says this, he bends down and squints across at me like he’s trying to make a point. ‘I’d get a move on. Wind’s gonna pick up.’

My mother pushes her door open so that Gerald is forced to step away. He nods and heads back into the shop. For a moment my mother just sits there like there’s something she wants to say. We’ve never talked about leaving, and I wonder now if she thinks I want to.

‘Go on, get,’ I say, flicking my head in the shop’s direction. She rolls her eyes at me and smirks. I manage a laugh as she does a little sashay on her way into the shop, her skinny hips wiggling.

I get out of the car, which is suffocating, although the air outside is no better. I catch my reflection in the shop window—two pale legs poking out from beneath baggy shorts, frizzy copper hair—and imagine it’s Sissie standing there. My mother once said that as babies we looked just the same. When I raise my hand to give my reflection a wave, it waves right back. I flop to the ground, my back against the shop’s hot brick wall, and watch as a yellow bomber drones across the sky, the roar of its engine sounding like war.

My mother takes her time inside the shop. Bored of waiting, I push myself up and notice something lying in the gutter behind the car, not shiny like a chocolate wrapper or cigarette packet, but soft like a stuffed toy. I bend down to take a closer look and see that it’s a bird, about the size of a wren, dead and dulled with grime. Its breast and belly are striped like a bronze-cuckoo, but its tail and tertial feathers are yellow.

At the sound of trolley wheels rattling on the concrete, I step out from behind the car.

‘You scared the shit out of me,’ my mother huffs. ‘I thought you’d disappeared.’ There is panic in her voice. She sees the bird and nudges it with the toe of her boot. It rolls over stiffly. I look to her, wondering if this it—the yarn bird. I can feel my heart fluttering in my chest. She shakes her head as though saying no. Or maybe she just feels sorry for the dead creature. I am too afraid to ask, so I get back in the car and put my feet up on the dash, and we take turns coughing from the smoke that seeps in through the vents.


She spreads the contents of a paper shopping bag out on the bench. Candles and matches. Batteries and ten-litre casks of water. I sit on a stool at the kitchen bench and watch, still wheezing from the smoke outside. From a second bag, she takes a stack of canned dolmades, jars of pickled artichokes and a family-size bag of party-mix lollies. Things that, to my knowledge, she’s never eaten in her life. I look more closely at her face and for the first time see cracks in it. The deepening lines and trembling mouth, like it’s only just managing to hold itself together.

Out-of-control. Record-breaking. Catastrophic. The same words now project from the telly on repeat. Unprecedented. As though no one knew this was coming. On the screen: steam rising from a wallaby’s skin as it jumps into a lake; a dozen blackened sheep carcasses piled along a fence-line; an aerial view of a burned-out car, the bodies of a father and his son still inside. These fires, it tells us, burn with a new kind of ferocity, spitting fireballs, creating their own weather systems, developing fronts hundreds of kilometres long. The staying and defending of homes is no longer sanctioned. Getting out early is the only assurance of survival.

The cracking sound of my mother’s palm as it hits the laminated benchtop is like the bolt of lightning that split one of the cypress trees last spring. I can’t help but flinch and stand wide-eyed, wondering what it is that I’ve done wrong. Although there are no tears, my mother’s face is screwed tight. I slip off the stool and reach my arms around her waist.


I’m checking the hoses and fittings for the hundredth time when I feel a flake of ash, soft as a moth’s wing, settle on my eyelashes.

‘Look!’ I yell, pointing at my face.

My mother, whose face is red and blistered with sweat, squints at me and then turns her ear to the wind. Listening.

The wind has picked up and the sky has darkened. I can no longer see the ocean from the verandah, nor smell its salt and brine.

‘Go inside and pack a bag,’ she shouts.




I am four or five years old and my mother is giving the kitchen a fresh coat of white paint. She has the radio’s volume turned up enough for me to hear it thrumming from my bedroom down the hallway. Bored of drawing, and of peeling the paper wrapping off my crayons, I think of my sister. Knowing my mother won’t hear me, I pad across the hallway to her bedroom and stand in front of the iron trunk that sits at the end of her bed. Inside are Sissie’s special things. I am nervous. My belly does flips as I struggle with its heavy lid, only just managing to push it back far enough so that it leans against the end of the bed. When I see what is inside—the white fleece blanket, the threadbare teddy that must have belonged to my mother or father before they passed it on to Sissie, and her yellow hat—I am driven by the sudden urge to be inside the trunk. Over goes one leg, and then the other, just like climbing a fence. I pull the lid of the trunk down on myself with a clang. Huddled in the dark, I pretend I am hiding and that any second now the lid will shoot open and Sissie will be standing there beaming down at me. I try to imagine what she might look like but the effort, and the result—a vague, faceless thing—sends my heart pounding. I am shut in the dark for less than a minute—long enough to have sensed the void that Sissie was lost to—before my mother rescues me, drawn to the siren-call of my wailing.


I throw in a few pairs of knickers and shorts, T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a woollen jumper before reaching for the box of shells from the cove. I can still see the frozen look on my mother’s face when she first saw them spread out on my bed last summer, as though I’d unearthed something forbidden and, in doing so, had crossed a line that could never be uncrossed. The way she’d turned away, unblinking. I open the box and rake my fingertips through them, picking out the skin-coloured cockle I sometimes slide under my pillow at night. I let it rest there, its two splayed halves like two closed eyelids in my palm.

That night it is too hot to sleep properly. I drift in and out of a dream about Sissie and the sea, although she isn’t floating in the inky water but sitting on the sand with the water lapping at her chubby legs. She is not alone; I am there, suspended above her, high enough that I could be closer to the stars than to her, for all the good it would do. I flail my arms and kick my legs, trying to swim down through the dark to her, but I am stuck fast in nothingness, unable to reach her.

Eventually I leave my bed and find my mother lying on her back on top of her bed in the near dark, her eyes open and staring.

‘What does it sound like?’ I whisper, climbing on beside her.

‘Like the trilling of a telephone in an empty house,’ she says without hesitation. She kisses my forehead before rolling away to face the wall.


I wake in the dark to find the air thicker, sharper in the throat than it has been, and my mother gone. The branches of the bottlebrush outside her bedroom window shriek against the glass.

I find her on the verandah. At the sound of the screen door banging shut, she pats the sofa cushion next to her. Across the valley to the east, an orange halo hovers above the ridge like an ill-timed sunrise.

‘How long?’ I ask. I close my burning eyes and listen again, but there are only sounds I already know. The wind gusting angrily. A cow lowing in distress. The ghostly call of a curlew. I open my eyes. I am tired of listening.

‘Not long,’ she says, and before she can bring her mug of tea to her lips, a bright flare of light appears on top of the ridge.

‘Look,’ I point. I sit down beside her, our arms almost touching, and together we watch the flames crawl their way into the valley towards us.


We watch the fire approaching for a minute before pulling on jeans and jumpers, heavy boots and wide-brimmed hats. In the hours that follow we block downpipes with socks full of sand, fill the gutters with water, hose down the western and northern walls of the house.

By dawn it’s upon us, having skipped over the creek and burned up the hill from the valley in half the time we had predicted.

‘Look!’ I shout. But my mother is facing away towards the beach; she hasn’t seen the tendrils of flames flickering from between the branches of pines behind the house, like hands reaching through the dark.

Turning slowly, her head tilted, she yells, ‘There. Do you hear it?’

I scream that we need to get inside until the front has passed, but she is already running down the verandah steps toward the forbidden eucalypt scrub. The heat is so intense now that a cluster of trees, although untouched by flame, combusts. I trail her down the steps, grab her arm, and try again to shout, but can’t for the coughing. When she turns to me her eyes are bright, enlivened. This way, they seem to say, this way! I follow her because she is my mother, down the slope through the scrub towards the sea.

She veers this way and that, as though trailing a visible path, and somehow I know it’s not her own path she is following but Sissie’s. I lose her to the smoke and find her again, unable to see more than a couple of metres ahead. The fire’s front presses hotter and hotter at my back. Then the ground gives way and I am falling, and my hands are Sissie’s hands, breaking my fall, and my cheek is Sissie’s cheek, flat against the warm, damp sand. The world is all heat and smoke and I don’t have it in me to get up. But already my mother is away, drawn by a force I can’t see or hear. Too afraid to be left alone, I push myself up and scramble after her as she leaps across the wave-smoothed rocks, knowing every crack and dip that lies between.


The air is cooler inside the cave. We move further inside until the roar of the wind and flames lowers to a hush and then falls away and we can no longer feel the heat of the world at our back. My sunburned skin prickles from the drop in temperature and the eerie silence, which is disrupted only by the soles of boots scuffing on rock, and my wheezing breath. When I stumble again, my mother’s hand lets go of mine and does not find it again. I clutch at the space in front of me, but she is already out of reach.

‘What does it sound like?’ I rasp the words into the darkness, desperate for the comfort of her voice. There is a sigh, a long, fraught breath heaved inward and let out again, which could be my own.

‘Mum! What does it look like?’ My eyes burn and water from the smoke. I drop to the stone floor and drag in what air I can, feel the familiar softness of wool brush my arm.

Then I hear it. A scuffling from above as something shifts in the darkness. Then a note sounds, low and mournful, like a child crying.

The yarn bird.

Here it is, I think.

I feel inside my pocket for the cockleshell, its two halves closed tightly inside my fist. As my breath softens and the darkness presses in, and there is just the ache of smoke in my throat and chest, I think of my mother, and what she will do when she leaves this dark place. After the fires have passed, and the world has burned, and she has finally found what she is looking for.