There’s no such thing as bushfire season anymore. It’s all year round, and even now in winter there is a total fire ban in place. The nearby dams are almost dry. The edge of Lake Eildon should be right where we’re sitting, trading stories, green yabbies scuttling past our toes. Instead we’re sitting on earth cracked all over, like the surface of Mum’s pavlova before she smothers it with cream.
Some talk more than others. I’m just listening, or pretending to. It’s not easy to be in the company of all of these cops. I’m not comfortable with it, but I suppose that doesn’t mean much. I rarely feel comfortable. There are other wives and girlfriends here too, and kids, a few of whom are pretty grubby and rowdy. They run barefoot and wild, playing some game that makes sense to them and them alone. They are moving too much for the mozzies to land on them. We’re easier targets, sitting or standing around, so the mozzies get drunk on our drunk blood instead.
Someone suggests we make a fire. I mention the fire ban and they all shrug it off. One of them, the small one, tells me to grow a pair. The others laugh. I’m sure they think I belong over with the other women who are busy setting up for dinner. Or that I don’t belong at all. Perhaps they think that their government jobs are more important than mine. Almost everyone here is a cop, parole officer, or a guard in the Gippsland detention center. The small one works in communications for Victoria Police. They seem suspicious of me, the newcomer, the psychiatrist, as though they think I’m analyzing everything they say and do.
When I contest their bravado with logic, “What happens if we get caught?” They say, “By who?” After a while I offer, “Other cops?” They laugh again. This time it’s the sergeant. He says, “I’ll flash my Freddie.” At first, all my brain processes is him saying “I’ll flash my.” He makes it sound lewd and I’m imagining him flashing his dick. How many homophobic jokes about two-man tents do you think one man can make? Whatever you imagine, triple it and you might be in the vicinity of this guy’s repertoire.
I’m near to this sergeant not by choice but chance, and obviously too close as he struggles with the kerosene’s tamper-proof lid and loses his cool and yanks it off gracelessly, spilling kerosene on my arm. It soaks through the sleeve. I take my jacket off and use it to wipe at my forearms. There is a chill on my skin where the kerosene settled, but it doesn’t last long. Only the smell remains, and a sensation that is neither damp nor wet but something else, something familiar but distant. The sinking feeling in my chest deepens and a nauseated panic sets in as the name Freddie pinballs around inside my chest, finally registering.
“It means he’ll show his badge,” one of them is saying.
“What?” I say.
“His Freddie,” the small one says. “His Freddie is his badge.”
If I don’t acknowledge what they’re saying they’ll keep on saying his name: Freddie…Freddie…Freddie. The lighter fluid’s odor takes me back to being seventeen again. To the summer of the fires.
We were in high school then, drowning in hypotheses. Life itself was an experiment. We were bad. We were Catholic-schoolgirl bad. We were impressionable and opinionated and armed with just a sheen of knowledge, like the skin that forms on warmed milk, gone cold. We picked fights with our parents. We mocked their luxury cars. We questioned the sincerity of their faith and called out their conspicuous consumption. We skateboarded to school and stashed our boards behind the utility shed. When the final bell rang, we’d ollie down the steps of the chapel, clipping the statue of Mary MacKillop with our boards, every dent or scuff a victory. At home, we smoked joints in plain sight of most of our parents who either didn’t realize or chose to look the other way. We tried all of the drugs we could get our hands on but eventually settled on pot. The party drugs meant you had to go to a party, or worse, a nightclub, and that just wasn’t our thing.
We were thinkers. At least we thought we were, and we thought that meant existing in a perpetual state of existential dread. Sitting around discussing the dread. We said “cunt” a lot and even more after we discovered Kant, smug with cleverness. M’s older brother was studying philosophy in uni and that’s how we heard about him. We sat around the pool at M’s house passing The Metaphysics of Morals around one way, the joint the other way, taking turns to read aloud.
We were the privileged, well-bred kids of privileged parents: Queen’s Counsels, CEOs, lawyers, surgeons, magistrates. D’s dad was a little more complicated. The son of wealth, he’d rebelled against his strict upbringing and started Melbourne’s most successful and infamous brothel, the Perfumed Garden, with his inheritance. What had initially been a screw you to his buried parents turned out to be a hugely successful business. He spent his money on race cars, had a helicopter that sat on the lawn by the pool. Every Friday afternoon, he would emerge from the house, cross the lawn and give us a wave before getting in the chopper. The pool surface would ripple as the rotors began to spin. Before long the noise and wind would be too much and we would all jump in and watch from beneath the choppy surface. Only D would remain above water, waist-deep, a middle finger saluting the helicopter as it lifted into the sky and her dad flew off to the Portsea pub for a beer.
Our parents were too important and busy to parent. Or they just didn’t feel the need to get too involved in our feral teenage lives. So long as our grades were good (and they were) we were free from much intrusion. We were set for success in our high school years; we’d ace the exams. University acceptance was a given. We thought we were invincible, and then we killed a kid, Freddie Greene, and got away with it, and proved we really were invincible after all.
The bushfires had started early during the summer of 1999. The talking heads on the television, our parents, our teachers: They all blamed the record drought. But we never knew another Australia. Our whole lives, the country had been experiencing it—no watering the yard between dawn and dusk; four-minute showers; ads on TV telling us “don’t be a Wally with water.” Not that our parents abided by the regulations. Our houses had lush, green lawns hidden behind tall hedges that surrounded our properties. It was never clear if the hedges were there to protect us from what lurked on the outside or to conceal the wealth flaunted within. In any case, our families saw themselves as being above it all, immune to the water restrictions imposed statewide.
Can’t we just call the thousand-year drought, we asked in science class, the climate? Is a permanent drought really a drought? Isn’t it just, weather?
Why did we bother asking so many questions when we felt as if we had the answers all along? Everything was phrased as a rhetorical question back then, mainly because we never thought that the adults around us could provide us with any meaningful illumination. It was that time when you believe it’s up to you to make change happen, that the adults are jaded and disappointing cogs in the machinery of society. For us, lighting the fires was a communication greater than what we were capable of with words alone. We thought we could prove that the government would prioritize the rich inner-city suburbs, our suburbs, over the rural communities that were burning. We saw ourselves as part of the problem and perhaps that’s why we did what we did.
It hadn’t really dawned on us just how privileged we were until Wally Tjungurrayi, one of our teachers, had pointed it out to us. It was in Wally Tjungurrayi’s class that we felt this particular shame for the first time. It’s not that he wanted us to feel uncomfortable. He wanted us to see Australia, to try to experience its present and reflect on its past, through a different lens. He was the first Aboriginal person we’d ever met.
Wally Tjungurrayi cared about us. He had a different way of speaking to us. We were used to teachers delivering lessons, lecturing through stiff lips and demanding our attention but never earning it. Wally Tjungurrayi took us places and showed us things, things in our own city that we had no idea were there. And even when we were stuck in the classroom with him there was something in the atmosphere. I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe I’m the only one who felt it.
On the first day of class, he walked in and stood up front, leaning back onto the desk, arms akimbo, hands in pockets, waiting for quiet. We had heard that the new teacher was an Aboriginal man from the Kimberley. When we didn’t respond to his presence, he turned and began writing on the whiteboard, January 26: Invasion Day. That was all it took. He wrote his name on the board and said that because none of us would be able to pronounce it correctly, we might as well just call him Wally. Someone made a “don’t be a Wally with water” joke. No one laughed. Halfway through the class, I asked what Invasion Day had to do with our geography curriculum.
“Oh that?” He turned to look back at his script on the board, “I just thought if we have time we’d go around the room and share how we spent the holiday weekend. Get to know each other a bit.”
Our admiration was instantaneous, and we never just called him Wally, always Wally Tjungurrayi.
We learned about the birds, our namesake, on the last day of year 11. The black kite wasn’t part of the curriculum. We were sitting under the big jacaranda tree on the hill that overlooked the sports fields. From there we could see the smoke haze to the north. Wally Tjungurrayi told us about the birds. He was more animated than usual as he talked that day, describing how black kites had been seen transporting fire for their own gain: They swoop into a fire zone and grab burning or smoldering branches with their talons, then fly to new areas, dropping the small torches to expand the fire. The blackened ground reveals all kinds of animals and bugs, and they fly in and feed on them.
As he was speaking, a cluster of purple flowers helicoptered down from the canopy above, landing in my lap.
“That’s good luck there,” Wally Tjungurrayi said.
“Really?” I said, my heart thumping. I picked the fluted flowers up, studying them as if they had some prophecy etched on their petals.
“Nah,” he said, flipping his hat over in his hands. “Just kidding. The jacaranda is an introduced species. Indigenous to Brazil. The Brits brought them at the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he added as he flicked a fly off the top of the hat.
Everyone laughed—everyone but me and Wally Tjungurrayi. I placed the flowers in the middle of my journal and carefully pressed it shut. When I got home, I placed them in my Encyclopedia Britannica, under the entry for the tree.
It was that night that the six of us became the Black Kites. We were lazing around D’s pool, reading from Marx’s Das Kapital (having moved on from Kant). Pizza boxes were splayed open, joints rolled, and something happened after we finished leafing through Marx’s “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.” I can only liken it to a change in the direction of the wind. Something atmospheric that swept across our skin and landed heavy in our gut. It was fueled by how much we hated our parents and hated having won the life lottery. The air was tainted with the smell of the fires, smoke carried by the northerly winds. It was when we noticed the smell and how the smoke cast a sort of veil that we thought of using fire like the black kites. We would take the fire and spread it like the birds themselves. We would burn down the hedges.
The state’s volunteer fire force was stretched to the limit. They fought bushfires day in, day out, and as Christmas approached the Victorian government made a lame attempt to compensate the poor bastards, as if tax breaks were going to make a difference. The firefighters had used up their annual leave to fight the fires; some had taken extra time off from their paying jobs to volunteer.
Year 11 was over, and we had the whole summer ahead of us, and this was how we were going to spend it. We would light fires in the city, disrupt the system and reveal its hypocrisy. That was our big plan.
We decided then and there that the Black Kites wouldn’t have a leader. That all members would be equal. No single one of us would have thought of doing what we did, or been able to carry it out, or even wanted to. It was as if, in forming a collective, the will of each individual was negated and replaced by a unified desire to annihilate.
The first week of December that year had been the hottest on record. There was no southerly wind on the horizon to cool us off. The air dried our throats and no amount of blinking would help. By the time we were planning our first attack, mid-month, embers from the bushfires were barreling toward the suburbs. They were kilometers ahead of the fire front, aided by the winds, like monstrous flailing arms reaching forward, trying to get a grip. Even at a distance you could taste it in your mouth. There was a layer of ash on anything that stood still long enough.
Our target was the home of Dean Forbes, the most popular guy at Saint Joseph’s, the fancy Catholic boys’ school in Toorak, where most of us lived. His dad was the CEO of a mining company in Western Australia. Theirs was a house with a name—a poetic signifier of prestige and provenance. Eden Lea? Halcyon House? Something like that. We waited until 3 a.m. to soak the hedge with lighter fluid before igniting it. We had a car parked four blocks away. We wore black clothes and balaclavas over our heads. Despite our planning and all the coordinated effort, the fire didn’t take. Those hedges were thick and green and soaked with water. Z, the QC’s daughter, went off script and lit the letterbox. The thing burnt to a crisp, made the news, on account of Dean’s dad being high profile in the corporate world. It was put out by the local brigade without too much effort. It raised eyebrows. We were determined to do better.
The second attack was on a house in Brighton Beach. We chose it for several reasons. One being that we wanted to venture farther out from our neighborhood while training. We wanted to get better. If we started with our neighbors’ hedges, police would begin patrolling the area. We wanted time for that to wane. The house we’d targeted belonged to J’s ex. It had been a nasty breakup. We figured the cunt had it coming.
We chose a Tuesday night, the second Tuesday in January, to burn the Brighton Beach hedges. We had graphed traffic patterns every night for two weeks and calculated that Tuesday was the quietest night, and that 4 a.m. was the optimal time. Being one of Melbourne’s nicer beaches, the area was too busy with locals and tourists to do it at any other time.
We used bikes and split up into three teams. The first team would ride by, heading north along the Esplanade, dousing the hedges with lighter fluid. The second team would ride by five minutes later heading in the opposite direction, igniting the fire. The third team was on lookout. By 5:30 a.m. everyone would have made it back home and be able to slip in, unnoticed by dozing parents.
The Brighton Beach fire was a great success. The hedge was destroyed and we spent time in plain sight of the house on the beach the following week, turning our bodies like rotisserie chickens to ensure an even suntan. People walking by stopped to see the damage. The fire had melted the top of the post that held the net for their clay tennis court so that its shape had distorted. It looked like a charred candy cane. The house itself, glazed, modern, and all right angles, appeared naked. The façade of the second story was floor-to-ceiling glass and so all of their belongings, expensive furniture, and walls adorned with artwork were on display. The whole house and its occupants seemed violated by the public gaze that we, and the rest of the city, were afforded once the hedge was razed.
The bushfires continued to devour the north and east of the state. The smoke had become a part of the view that year, the sunsets an otherworldly color. We stockpiled lighter fluid for weeks, buying small amounts at a time from hardware stores in far-flung suburbs. We caught the train to places we’d never been before and were prepared with a defense in case anyone questioned us: collecting supplies for Sunday barbecues, doing our parents a favor. No one ever did seem to care.
It was on one of those trips that we saw Wally Tjungurrayi, browsing the barbeque aisle at the Bunnings hardware store in Broadmeadows. It was just Z and me, the QC’s daughter, that day. Our gawking eyes couldn’t register that he was right there in front of us, at least not in time to turn and walk away or duck and hide. Just standing there in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. His stupefied expression was one we’d never seen before. We had also never seen his bare legs, and the sight of his calf muscles, balled up and taut like a sprinter’s, was a revelation that burned in my mind later on the bus ride home. It still does. His existence outside of school was incomprehensible. He seemed just as surprised as we were. It went something like this:
“Girls, how unexpected!” (He scratched his head, like actually scratched his head as if seeing us there was a thought trying to worm its way out of his brain.) Then he outright asked: “What brings you to a hardware store in this part of town?”
We had caught a tram and a train and walked to the store from the Broadmeadows station, the trip taking over an hour, so he was right to wonder. Two uppity kids from Toorak had no business in Broadmeadows and we all knew it. The fucking Weber barbeques knew it.
I was suddenly aware of every centimeter of skin stretched over my body, like the heat of summer’s first sunburn was stuck, radiating. Miraculously, Z managed a lie that we were in the area volunteering with Meals on Wheels, we’d been sent out for supplies.
Wally Tjungurrayi nodded slowly and then looked at the two of us standing stiff like statues, each holding two bottles of lighter fluid.
“Put those back,” he said. And we did what he said, feeling for the first time that he had reduced us to children.
He looked me in the eye and my body flooded with something like fear—sure we’d been found out.
“You’ll want to use this kind,” he said, reaching for a different bottle and handing it to me. “This one is low odor and won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.”
All I could manage was a single nod of my head.
“See you girls in school,” he said, grabbing his bag of charcoal and swinging it onto his shoulder before walking away.
I thought about it on the way home and I couldn’t remember ever having looked into his eyes, not until then, when I was searching in them for some recognition that he knew what we had done, or some approval for what we were about to do.
We chose the Lunar New Year to light the ten fires. We figured that with the big parade in Chinatown and smaller dragon parades scattered around the city, the firefighters would have their hands full. It wasn’t based on any particular information we had researched, we just figured that it would be a night when the fire stations would be doing some prevention and outreach work. We also knew that stations all over the city had given up some of their men to the rural stations to continue battling the bushfires. They were operating with a skeleton crew.
It was a Saturday night, and while most of our classmates were high on ecstasy at clubs with fake IDs, we were about to pull off what would later be known as the most brazen act of arson in recent memory in Melbourne. The media would dub it the Dragon Fire of 2000 on account of it happening on the Lunar New Year and it being the very first day of the year of the dragon.
We went to the cinema and bought tickets that we tore in half and kept in case anyone ever asked us what we did that night. After we bought the tickets, we sat around in the lobby drinking cokes and eating popcorn. We had seen the movie the week before, so we could talk about it in case anyone asked. After the movie had started, we went our separate ways. The idea was to decentralize. We used a similar tactic as the Brighton fire, with Team 1 dowsing and Team 2 igniting. The plan was to light up ten hedges spread across two suburbs, knowing that they shared the station and would have trouble responding to all of the fires at once. Even if engines from the stations in nearby neighborhoods responded, we figured the hedges might burn to the ground.
All ten fires burned well, and it wasn’t long before the blaring of the sirens filled the air. Some of us stood with our neighbors, gawking at the horror and the beauty of the flames as they licked the shrubs.
It wasn’t until the morning news reports that we found out what we had done. We chose Freddie Greene’s place without knowing it was his house. Some of us had known him from primary school. He was a nice enough kid. A good-looking guy, but kind of a loner. A stoner too. We chose the house because it sat on the corner of Orrong Road and St. Georges Road and the hedges were like a wall along each façade. We wanted a spectacle.
The fire burned ferociously all the way along both streets. Had the hedges been less imposing, we might have seen how close the pool house was. The pool house where Freddie had passed out, stoned or drunk. The fire jumped from the hedge, at first burning the awning and then the decorative shingled walls and roof, all in a matter of minutes. Underneath the shingles the pool house had been covered in flammable cladding. No one could ever have known this, not until it caught. By the time the engines came roaring down the street, it was too late. I remember how the plumes of smoke didn’t look gray but orange, and how the embers glowed in the sky like fireflies, finally landing as black specks on the pavement.
Freddie’s parents weren’t home that night to see it happen. To help. They were at some gala raising funds for the bushfire appeal. Their neighbors stood at a safe distance from across the street, watching the whole event, with something like rapture in their eyes. Not one of them ran in to help. I was there. We all thought it was just the vegetation that was being engulfed by the flames, whipped around by the winds.
The firefighters were the first to step foot onto the property and see that the pool house was on fire. It was as they rushed in to reposition themselves on the interior of the property that the news crews arrived to film the horrible scene from the street. A wave of realization fell over the group huddled on the sidewalk, shielding our faces from the heat radiating at us, and a collective panic set in when we understood that what we were witnessing was more than just a hedge fire. People all around were coughing. One woman was on her knees on the grass of the nature strip. I remember shielding my face from a cloud of smoke that blanketed us all. The taste of it on my teeth. That’s when I got out of there.
I tried to outrun it but the rank smell of the fire stuck to me, and when I got home, after puking coke and popcorn all over the bathroom floor, I soaked my clothes in the shower, stomping on them with my feet to try to get the smell out. I scrubbed at my hair and scratched at my scalp so hard it later scabbed in places. Still, I could smell the smoke on my pillow the next morning. My snot was black for days.
The mayor and police commissioner were all over the news, vowing to find the “bastards” who did it. To leave “no stone unturned.” They seemed to know it wasn’t the act of a single person. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that one person couldn’t set so many fires simultaneously. But bastards? They never seemed to consider that the crimes could have been pulled off by a group of teenage girls. So long as they were looking for the bastards, we figured we were in the clear.
In the weeks after the fire, suspicion fell on the students at Saint Joseph’s, where Freddie went to school. But they never thought to canvas the students at Saint Catherine’s. The whole city called us “gutless cowards” in the days that followed, on the news and in conversations. I heard my parents say it too. For once they were right about something.
We tried to act normal at school after it happened. For the first few weeks of term they brought in grief counselors, but we refused to see them. We thought it best to disperse and not be seen milling around too much on campus. It was the beginning of the end for the Black Kites. It’s as if we convinced ourselves that it never happened in the first place. It was the black kite, not us. The black kite and the wind.
People had dubbed it the Black Summer, and it was finally over by March. Some rain had helped to dampen the ground, and the winds had let up. It was still a record year for the fires, though, with 450,000 hectares charred, countless properties lost and scores of wildlife killed. And Freddie. It was only Freddie Greene, passed out in his pool house in Toorak, who was killed by fire that summer.
A couple of us attended the funeral. Freddie was in our year, and a few of our guy friends walked beside his coffin as they wheeled it out of the church at the end of the ceremony. Sharing a smoke behind the church, Z made a joke about his parents not having to pay for a cremation. No one laughed.
I imagined Freddie’s glossy white coffin empty, his teeth, loose and bouncing around inside as they wheeled it over the bluestone pavers toward the hearse. In my mind they are shiny and white, pristine as the coffin itself. On bad days, I hear them rattling around inside.
If you go to the places the bush fires devastated now you’ll find a different ecosystem. Some plants thrived in the fire’s aftermath, and so the Black Summer fires brought with them their own beauty.
Nothing really changed in our neighborhood. Freddie’s family moved out. An even bigger house was built in place of the house that stood before. Some football coach lives there now with his wife and kids. The kids go to Saint Catherine’s. They replaced the hedge with a wall, with cameras surveilling everything that comes near it.
No one really knows what happened to Wally Tjungurrayi. He quit teaching us halfway through year 12. At first our parents were up in arms about his sudden departure. Then some nasty rumors went around about him. It was outrageous. Us Kites figured he got sick of dealing with all the rich white assholes in Toorak. It was more likely that the darkness that we had brought upon the community was too much for him to take. If anyone mentioned what happened to Freddie in class he kicked them out. M’s brother told her that it probably had something to do with his cultural practice. M was the one who told us about sorry business. She said we should never again say Freddie’s name aloud. If we did, his spirit would be called back and get trapped. Freddie needed to make the journey without interference. For us it was convenient not to talk about it, to never utter Freddie’s name.
Years have passed and not one of us has spoken a word about it to each other. Not that we go out of our way to reconnect. If we do see each other from time to time it’s by chance and it’s always a trigger for my panic attacks. I’ve spent my life avoiding those streets where we grew up. Whether the other Kites have told people in their lives about what we did back then, I’m not sure. I certainly haven’t. Given that no one has come around asking questions, I think it’s safe to assume that we’ve all kept the secret. Some of us have fared better than others, dealing with it. Some of us are better at denial.
Sitting here with the heat of the bonfire on my cheeks, I’m tempted to confess. Or at least to break the promise and say Freddie’s name. The smell of kerosene. The dreams keep coming—nightmares, every one of them. In some, the flames are a voice, but I can never understand what it’s saying.
The bigger logs begin to hiss. They’re damp. These idiots don’t know a thing about making a fire. I doubt any of these men would believe me even if I did come clean. Ryan stands across the fire from me and I look at his kind face, his sweet eyes. The air between us wavers from the heat. Six months together and he has no idea who I really am, and I wonder why I’m with him. He’s handsome and good and a dangerous choice of lover for someone like me.
I excuse myself from the gathering and walk toward the water’s edge, just to try to rinse my arm. I kick off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants and walk in until I’m knee deep. The water is frigid but calming. The mud fills the little wedges between my toes and I feel connected to the place. I bend down and splash at the water and rub at my wrist but the lighter fluid won’t stop stinging. I dry my arm on my pants. Still the smell remains. Like something my own glands produced.
The stars are out in full. Ryan joins me, standing at the water’s edge, his boots settling in the mud. I feel as if I’m in one of my nephew’s paintings from preschool, where he dips his fingers into the paint and smears his hand across the page. The dark night is broken with the white spray of the Milky Way, right down the middle. And I am a stick figure standing under something vast that I don’t quite comprehend.
I point out to Ryan a tumbling satellite in the sky above.
“See it? It moves slowly, blinking.” It’s easy to make out among the stillness and hush of the night sky. He says I must be mad to have my feet in the water.
“Madness is my line of work,” I tell him, and he picks me up like a child and carries me back to where I left my shoes. He has one arm around my back and the other underneath my knees. My legs dangle like a little girl’s. I tell him not to put me down. Not just yet.