Grand Prize Winner
Fire Bug by Mykaela Saunders
The small bus rattled onto Urliup Road in the late afternoon sun, kicking up dust from the unsealed road. The bus was full of dozing Year 9 Aboriginal Studies students from a southside Brisbane high school. The transition from smooth road to bumpy woke the kids up into yawning and chatting and pointing out the windows at all the open land outside - so different to the concrete suburbs they’d come from. Soon they couldn’t see much for all the swirling dirt.
Tyson stared out the window through the dust. Betty nudged him with their hip. ‘Deep in thought there,’ they said. Tyson just smiled and kneed them back.
‘You’re from down here, hey?’ Betty asked. Tyson nodded. He was a Bundjalung fella through his mum, but he’d grown up away from her side of the family - and from the rest of the community. He didn’t know them too well, nor did he know this country. But it felt like home to Tyson.
At the other end of the dirt road, three rangers sat around a table under a huge shed, enjoying their cuppas in peace before the students arrived. Out of a rotating roster of dozens, it was Lara, Leon and Uncle Raymond’s turn to camp out this week and show the kids the ropes.
Lara saw the brown cloud of dust appear near the main road. She pointed to it with her lips and Leon and Uncle Raymond turned around to watch the rusty cloud come down the road toward them. They all sculled their cuppas and pulled their cowls up from around their necks to mask their mouths and noses.
The bus slowed down in front of the rangers’ camp. The brakes crunched to a stop, the hydraulic sighed and the door opened, and the cloud of dust floated up away from the bus.
Bodies swarmed from the bus’ door into the thick air, vague shapeless shadows sharpening into the silhouettes of kids as the remaining dust settled on the ground, and all in the kids’ hair and clothes too.
The rangers walked over to them and the teacher, Mr Mac shook each of their hands.
‘Good to see you again,’ he said, ‘and thanks for having us back.’
‘You’re very welcome,’ said Lara.
The kids eyed the three rangers shyly; they all looked similar with red dust coating their faces in the sunshine.
‘C’mon you mob, don’t be shame,’ Leon said, waving the kids closer. They shuffled closer to him. He introduced himself and the other two.
‘It’s good to see all you deadly new faces,’ Lara said, smiling. Her immense cheekbones rose and pushed her blue eyes half-closed.
‘Thank-you,’ the kids murmured, tracing shapes in the ground with their sneakers.
‘Let’s sit down and get started then,’ said Uncle Raymond.
The kids sat down beneath an old silver gumtree while Uncle welcomed them to his country. He pointed to Wollumbin and the kids followed his hand to look at the green mountain. In a serious voice, he told the story of the chief while they connected to his resting place with their minds.
Uncle Raymond clapped his gnarled hands together. ‘Okay then, housekeeping time! Listen up, you mob, and I mean that - you need to listen to us at all times. You got it?’ They nodded. He crouched down to look each of them in the eye. ‘This is dangerous business we’ll be dealing with this week. We’re playing with fire, here.’ The kids’ eyes widened and he coughed away a laugh.
‘If you can’t handle the heat get outta the kitchen!’ He roared back laughing at his own joke.
‘Righto, that’s enough Unc,’ said Leon. He turned to the kids. ‘Watch out for this cheeky old fella - he loves carrying on with his jokes.’ The kids smiled.
Lara stepped up. ‘This week, you’ll be learning all about fire — how and when to burn and when not to. We’re hoping you young mob will learn this so you can take this fire knowledge out into your own countries, and hopefully learn how to help manage these monster bushfires that’ve been terrorising our countries the last few decades.’
A half-smiled flickered over Tyson’s face. He’d always been fascinated with fire; it had even got him into trouble when he was younger. But he couldn’t help it. He was obsessed. He wrote shit rap joints full of burning metaphors, he drew patterns of smoke and flames over his school books. He sat with all the durry smokers even though he didn’t smoke. He just liked being the one who always had a lighter. Never lent it to anyone, either. You had to go ask him every time, and he’d have to light the thing for you.
‘I’m Leon. I know I’m not much older than all of you but I’ve been learning about fire since I was a pup. I take my cultural responsibilities seriously.’ His face softened in a smile.
‘It’s our culture to use fire,’ Lara said. ‘Our people have used fire for so long that many of our native trees can’t release their seeds without it. But we use it smart and safe ways, not burning off willy-nilly.’
Leon nodded. ‘There’s a time for everything and everything in its time. Our old people moved around according to the stars and what the land told them, what was blooming and what needed a break from us,’ she said.
'Speaking of moving,’ Uncle Raymond said. ‘First things first. Go set your camps up and unpack all your things, then come back to the main camp and we’ll get ready for supper.’
After breakfast the next morning the rangers took the kids down to the creek.
Lara kicked her sandals off and rolled her pants up, and stepped into the water.
‘Now, look. The creek is very low so there won’t be many in here, and not many big ones. But what you’ve got to do is feel around for them. Pretend your feet are hands, and feel around with your toes like they are fingers.’ She twisted her body, screwing her feet into the silt. ‘Now who wants a try?’
Tyson nudged Betty forward.
‘C’mon then,’ Lara beckoned to Betty, who kicked their sneakers and socks off, and walked into the creek beside Lara. Betty planted one foot down as an anchor and felt around the creek bed with their other foot, digging down into one spot, then stopped, smiled, and lifted their leg up, a shiny black myself clutched in their long toes. They passed the mussel to their hand and cleaned it off in the water. Tyson clapped, and the rest of the kids did too.
‘Good one Betty! Now, pop it in that bucket over there so they’ll be clean by tonight,’ said Lara.
Betty plopped the mussel into the bucket.
‘Now, who’s next? Only two of you at a time. And only take one mussel each, because the creek needs them more than we do. So make sure you say thanks.’
And each kid found a treasure as the sun rose higher over head. As each of the kids finished they sat and watched the others. Tyson watched the water evaporate from his feet, leaving a fine coat of dust behind.
When they were done, Uncle Leon squatted down in front of them with a canvas bag. ‘Don’t get too comfortable now. I’m gonna show youse how to make fire with nothing but dry grass and your own cleverness.’
Tyson’s eyes lit up.
‘It’s good to learn how to do this with your own two hands,’ Leon said, showing the kids each object as he unpacked it from his bag - a coolamon, wooden blocks, sticks, and small bundles of dried grass. 'This’ll make you a proper blackfella. It’s how our old people used to do it, and it’s still an important skill.’
‘Yeah but we got lighters and stuff now,’ said Betty. Tyson felt in his pocket, flicked open the cool metal lid and thumbed the wheel of the zippo he’d flogged from his old man.
‘True,’ Leon nodded. ‘But what happens if you’re stuck out bush without a lighter, eh? You’ll be cold and hungry before too long.’
‘Or you can sit around and wait for lightning to strike, but I don’t like your chances!’ Uncle Raymond said, slapping his thigh. Leon shook his head and rolled his great blue eyes.
‘Now, watch,’ he said. He picked up the coolamon and walked over to the creek, pawed at the wet sand and came away with a handful. Coolamon cradled in the crook of his arm, he slapped the sand over it and spread it around in a thick layer and patted down it down. He came back and set the coolamon down and picked up a small block of wood; he drew the kids’ attention to the indent in its centre. He placed the block indent-up on top of the sand. Taking a wad of dried grass, he fluffed it out and placed it on top of the wooden block. He picked up a long hardwood stick and tapped its pointed tip to show the kids, then placed it point-down on the grass-covered block of wood. Holding the stick there with one hand, he pressed the grass around it. Then, with both hands at the top of the stick, he rubbed them down its length, twisting it so fast and so light that his massive hands were a blur. Soon, a thin ribbon of white smoke snaked out from the friction point. Leon put the stick down and cupped his hands around the spark and blew. A small ball of fire flared up between his hands. The kids all clapped.
‘Now can I get a volunteer?’
Tyson’s skinny arm shot up and Mr Mac’s eyebrows shot up in tandem.
He’d never seen the lad volunteer for anything, he was always too busy looking too cool for everything as part of his hard act. Leon grinned at Tyson’s enthusiasm.
‘Yes young fella, come up here.’
Tyson went through the steps with Leon. He took longer than he would have liked, too many eyes on him, his unpractised hands not used to the deft twisting of the stick required, but soon he could smell the friction of wood, and faint smoke soon after. He looked up at Leon, grey eyes shining and big mouth grinning. ‘Quick, now blow into it so the fire has some fuel. Gentle, now.’
Tyson breathed into the kindling. A flame grew in response to being fed, and fire licked the rest of the kindling into consumption.
Everyone cheered. Tyson blushed. He couldn’t stop his smile.
‘Good work, lad! Must have magic breath,’ said Leon. He cocked his head to study Tyson’s face. ‘Hey, you’re Loretta’s boy aren’t ya?’
Tyson looked down and nodded. His fringe covered his face and his smile abandoned him.
‘Gorn then deadly lad,’ Leon shooed him off. ‘Go sit down.’
After a big morning of digging for mussels and learning how to make fire, the camp was getting ready for lunch.
‘Where’s Tyson and Betty? And Pete? And all the rest of them?’ asked Mr Mac. The rest of the students looked around and shrugged. Uncle Leon passed Lara the tongs and she took over barbeque duties while he went to look for the missing kids.
Behind the compost toilets, five small heads crowded around Tyson’s shiny head of charcoal hair, as he bent over his busy hands.
'What’s going on here?’ Leon growled, his shadow stretching over the group as he got closer.
Each kid looked up, wide-eyed and worried, except for Tyson, who looked down at the ground.
‘You mob get out of here. I’ll deal with youse later. Tyson, you stay here.’
The kids took off like the devil dog was at their heels. Leon turned to Tyson.
‘What, you think you can just go around and lighting fires by yourself now, do ya? You think you’re a big culture man now?’
‘Don’t you know how much danger you’ve just put everyone in? And not just as, but the whole town. Can’t you see how dry this country is now? They creek’s nearly gone and we haven’t had any decent rain for months!’
‘And what am I supposed to do with an apology? Huh? What am I supposed to do with you?’
‘Please don’t tell on me. I’ll get in big shit and they’ll tell Dad and he’ll flog me and I’ll have to live with him again.’
‘Mate, you shoulda thought about all that before you went big-noting to your mates. But you don’t call the shots around here. And it’s not just up to me anyway. I have to tell the others. That’s how we do things.’
'I am sorry.’
‘Good, I’m glad you’re sorry. I’ll have a yarn with the other two later, and we’ll decide what to do. In the meantime, you better be on your best behaviour and don’t even think about showing off again.’
‘Okay, I will. I promise’
Leon breathed out. It was hard to sustain anger at a kid.
‘How’s your Mum anyway?’
‘Dunno, she’s locked up again.’
'True. Well, where’s Dad, and the jarjums?’
‘Dad’s just got outta jail. Him and the kids are living with grandma down the road. I camp with them on the weekends.’
‘Where you live then?’
‘In a ressi house in Logan.’
‘And you don’t wanna live at home? With your brothers and sisters?’
‘Nah. I can’t handle it there with all of them.’ He puffed his chest up. ‘I can look after myself anyway.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure you can big fella.’ Leon smiled. ‘Well, go on now, piss off back to lunch. And I don’t even want to hear you breathing, you got me?’
That night, after dinner, they all sat around the campfire.
The kids were quiet - worn out from a big day of walking country and learning all about Bundjalung seasons - and here, listening to the rangers tell stories about what life used to be like for their people, they were peaceful, in awe, hypnotised by the stories of a different world.
The mussels had been resting in the bucket of water all day to clean themselves. Lara passed the bucket around and each kid took one out, and without talking, she showed them how to cook their mussel on the fire.
Meanwhile Uncle Raymond told them stories about the old days: stories from when he was young, and stories of before he was born. He told a very old story, about the first fire in Bundjalung country. Tyson stared deep into the fire and got lost in Uncle’s rhythmic droning voice, and saw the old story unfold in the flames in front of him.
Soon the sound of cracking mussel shells punctuated Uncle’s yarn, and the shuffles of kids moving the mussels off the coals.
‘Now,’ said Leon, when Raymond had finished. ‘Uncle’s story tells us many things, but what’s important for your learnin’ today is that whenever we leave a place we burn it off properly, so that it won’t build up and dry out, and no lightning or arsonists can destroy it all and kill the creatures left behind.’ He looked at Tyson, who looked away.
‘Whenever we get to a new place too,’ Lara added, ‘We do proper preparation. A few of us will go in first to look around, to see what the country is up to, and to set all the dead stuff alight so it’s safe for us to camp there.’
‘Yes, and then we smoke the area out to let country know we are coming to stay and look after it, but not for too long!’ Uncle Raymond sat up in his chair leaned in to look at them. ‘We make sure to leave when country gets sick of us — worn a bit thin from us overstaying, that is — and when we leave we burn our rubbish and clean the place up and smoke away our energy to let the place recover without our presence hanging around. And so nobody can do magic on us with anything we leave behind!’
The kids looked at each other with raised eyebrows, wide eyes flickering between glow and shadow.
‘Gonna rain soon everyone,’ said Aunty Lara. ‘Better cook any last ones up quick or they’ll go to waste. And we don’t have waste round here.’
Betty placed the last two mussels onto the coal.
'Scuse me Uncle Raymond,’ they said.
‘Yes, my girl,’ said Uncle Raymond.
‘Nah, not a girl.’
Raymond nodded. ‘Just a person.’
Betty nodded, and went on, ‘It just sounds like you fellas live the way the old people used to.’
‘Well, that’s the idea,’ he said. ‘There was a few hundred years where they tried to stop us all from doing this, with fences and policies and whatnot. But now they know to listen to us. So we’re back now, better than ever!’
The mussel shells cracked and Betty moved them out of the coals with a stick, and passed one to the person next to them: Dan. Tyson watched Dan pry the shell open and slurp the hot meat out.
A fat rain drop plopped onto Tyson’s face, then another and another, and soon the coals were sizzling and everyone’s faces were wet and shiny.
Lightning peeled across the sky, revealing the army of clouds glowering over the black hills of Carool.
‘Gorn, get!’ Uncle Leon shooed them off, as he and Lara helped Uncle Raymond up.
The kids scattered like marbles over the ground and into their tents. A chorus of zips ripped down and back up before the next bolt of lightning was thrown from the heavens.
Underneath the pelting sound of rain, Tyson listened out for the bustling to stop in the tents around him, and as soon as he heard snores, he snuck out of his tent and ran to the back of the camp shed to watch the storm.
The rangers were sitting inside the shed, slurping on cuppas. Behind them, out of their sight, Tyson froze.
‘So, I caught that that young lad of Loretta’s showing off his new skills today,’ Leon said. ‘Think he was big-noting for that Betty.’
‘He’s the one got in trouble at South Tweed school years ago. Same year as my granddaughter. He got caught burning ants with a magnifying glass. Bit cruel, huh?’ said Raymond.
‘Yeah but you gotta ask yourself, why would a kid do something like that?’ asked Lara. ‘You gotta look at how they’ve been raised. You know his mum, and his old man — well, he’s been banned from every single pub in town for year. I wouldn’t expect too much from Tyson.’
Leon and Raymond nodded. Tyson felt his insides burning up, felt his brain boiling over. He reached in his pocket for his zippo and its cool weight steadied him.
‘Anyway,’ said Leon, ‘I told him I’d yarn with youse tonight to decide what to do. He reckons we can’t tell his old man cos, well, you know.’
‘That might be the case, but he can’t go around setting everything on fire cos his hormones are raging! We’re trying to teach care and responsibility at this camp,’ said Raymond.
‘We have to report this or we could be sacked,’ said Lara.
‘He says he’ll get in big shit and he’ll have to go live with his dad again. I don’t think that’d be any good for him. He reckons he’s been doing well by himself.’
The three rangers ruminated on what to do.
Across the sky, lightning tore across the heavens and the world lit up from above. Thunder roared from deep inside the clouds overhead, and from its depths an electric spear was hurled down, straight and true into the heart of the big old tree they’d sat beneath on the first day of camp. The wide crown of the tree burst into flames, as fire poured down the tree and spread around the trunk. The bark was burning all over. The tree’s skin peeled off in great burning strips and floated to the ground around it.
Behind them, Tyson gasped.
Lightning lit up the sky all the way to the mountain, highlighting the warrior’s solemn face looking out across the land.
‘What you doing here sneaking around lad?’
But Tyson couldn’t tear his eyes away from the beautiful pattern burning on the grass in front of them, fire dancing shyly under the wet pressure of the air.
The adults looked at each other, and with a series of eyebrow raises, eye squints, nostril flares, lip purses, shoulder shrugs and neck cranes, they determined that Tyson wasn’t slow or disobedient, just a little fire bug. Obsessed.
‘You really like fire, aye young fella?’
Tyson thought to lie, but a stronger thought told him that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. His face gave him away anyway, taking away any free will he might have had to bullshit them. Tyson nodded. He felt lighter.
Uncle Leon said, ‘Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. You could be a ranger one day, you know that? But you do need to learn about fire properly first, and you can’t go around big-noting yourself. But you could really help our country out.’
Tyson dragged his eyes away from the ground and looked at Uncle Leon, hopeful. His eyes were perfect circles, reflected fire flickering in his wide black pupils.
‘Don’t visit too late. Come round before sunset otherwise he might be too drunk,’ Tyson had told them.
That weekend, Uncle Leon went to the house by himself; Tyson’s dad might have gotten shook if a gang of blackfellas rocked up to the house with his son, might have set him on edge and made him unpredictable. With the way Tyson was, and the kinds of troubles he had, Leon didn’t know if Dad had cleaned his act up.
Dad shook hands with Leon, wary. They sat down in the lounge room, and Leon told him what they proposed. The young kids spied on them from the hallway. Tyson sat there quiet and still. Leon explained, ‘In our ways, when someone becomes obsessed with something they have a responsibility to learn all about it and teach about it, use it as a tool. We let our young people find what they love and we structure their education around those loves. And your young fella, well. He loves fire.’
‘Yeah, he always has.’ Tyson’s dad frowned. ‘He used to light fires around the yard when he was little, and nearly burnt the joint down once or twice. I used to have to check his room and pockets all the time to make sure he wasn’t hoarding all me matches and lighters.’ Tyson gulped, the zippo in his pocket digging into his leg.
‘Well, fire can dangerous, and god knows the last few bushfires have gotten people scared. But it’s also our most important technology for looking after the place. And if the world keeps heating up the way it has been, we’re gonna need a lot more people who are keen to learn how to use it - people who aren’t scared of it, like your young fella here.’
Tyson’s chest puffed up. He was a man in Uncle Leon’s eyes, and maybe one day he would be a man in Dad’s eyes too.
‘Well what do we need to do then? I don’t got any money to help out.’
‘Nah, don’t worry about any of that. He’ll earn his keep - or his learning stops.’ Leon gave Tyson a look. ‘I know he won’t disappoint me.’ Tyson nodded very quickly.
They worked out the details then and there: Tyson would still come down to Tweed every weekend, and stay with Dad and kids and grandma of a night. But during the days he’d go on country with the rangers. For school holidays they’d negotiate how and where he’d spend his time, making sure he spent time with his family and still learnt about the burning business. Any running amok, and the deal was off.
Tyson, his Dad, and Uncle Leon all shook on the agreement. All of them had their responsibilities, and as long as they each held up their ends of the bargain they wouldn’t be letting anyone down. But nothing was set in stone; they all agreed to meet up every month to yarn about how everything was going, and yarn it out if there were any dramas or kinks to iron out.
As Tyson left with Leon, his dad saw how much taller his son was standing. Looked proud. It made him feel good.
And so, every weekend Tyson worked with the rangers. Tyson learnt about fire by going onto country with them: he learnt ways of using fire to look after country, and the right times and places to burn off. He learnt all about this powerful tool he was so obsessed with: its potential for destruction and for renewal, and how to wield it with foresight and restraint. At first he only watched and listened; he was made to try and understand things without butting in and asking questions.
Tyson was instructed under supervision to burn off sections of grass, using a cool fire that could be directed and controlled. He learnt to burn in mosaics, and then the proper rotations of each area. His love of fire was no longer stifled and made to burn inside him with dangerous anger, but used as a tool, applied as a technology, and practised through culture. He couldn’t believe how careless he’d been with such a powerful force.
On school holidays he camped with the rangers and each night they all sat around the fire and yarned. They were responsible for teaching him not just about fire, but where it came from, how it was a gift, it’s potential danger, and how to use it properly, with respect. Tyson learned all their stories and through these stories he learnt the Law, and the seasons, and the kinship and relatedness rules for his mob. The rangers enjoyed having Tyson around to help them manage country and, truth be told, they felt safer with their eyes on a known fire bug - knowing he growing out of being a danger to everyone.
The rangers kept in regular contact with Tyson’s old man and grandma. Tyson’s dad knew his boy was being looked after, and his destructive tendencies curtailed, channelled into something creative rather than destructive and wild. Dad took his responsibilities seriously too: he let that mob know whenever anything went on at home would affect his boy’s behaviour.
Tyson kept his obligations: he stopped wagging school and put more effort in there, and at home.
At school, he paid more attention to his teachers, especially Mr Mac. Tyson became more interested in Science, especially chemistry, geography, and environmental sciences. He saw the connections between his growing knowledge of seasons, cycles, weather, and climate. He gave a presentation for the first time in his life, having always been too shame before but always masquerading his shyness with a bad attitude.
He did better at English too, having been listening to the rangers’ stories and understanding narrative for the first time in his life. In art, he continued to draw fire, but in patterns, and processes more and more, and the green renewal of the land.
At home, he took more interest in his siblings, teaching them all that he learnt. Even Dad and Grandma listened, rapt.
And the only time he used fire was under the supervision of the rangers, until one day, a few years on, they decided he was ready to begin going out on his own if he needed. Soon after, Tyson began to take his younger siblings on camp with him, and then helped out with there school camps, and so he grew naturally into his place in his community.
And his ancestors were pleased that their knowledge was living on though his ways. Country was happy, its needs fulfilled, its burning wishes listened to.