Kirra hadn’t been born here, just as she hadn’t been born in most of the places she’d called home.
It had become increasing difficult for her to find a place to live. Since childhood, her family had been pushed further and further out from the place she’d been born.
It was just how things worked now. Life starts off with one norm, and time slowly chips away at it until all you’re left with is fond memories and an permanent impermanence.
Even worse, the community she’d grown up in had been forced apart. It was always sudden, and you never had any time to prepare or make plans with those you loved. So, you lost touch with them as they sought their own path in the new world they’d been forced into.
Binda, her father, had made it to the third new place Kirra had called home before succumbing to hopelessness. He’d seen too much and been too old to cope. Kirra’s only solace was that her own son, Biralee, had been too young to remember his grandfather and the tearful way he died.
She was grateful for that mercy, though the idea that Biralee had been born into this new normal never sat well with her. Constant instability, no matter how anyone sold it, was not a form of stability.
She made do by telling him stories of her own childhood, of the lush green and the sea. But she never told him that her own childhood had been easier than his. Kirra made sure to leave that out.
There were just some things children didn’t need to live with.
The world was at least half awful, but you kept that from them, for their sake and yours.
The last winter had been hard, with very little in the way of rain. The crops struggled, and her community with them.
“Bear bloody dinkum,” her friend Illarah said almost every time they met. “I think its time we moved on.” Though of course, she never did. Kirra imagined Illarah sticking it out here ‘til the bitter end. She was just that kind of person. Scraggily, but tough as nails. She admired that about Illarah.
Summers too had changed. They came earlier and earlier the older she got. The burning time that arrived in the distance each season grew brighter and brighter.
This year, the smoke had arrived well before anyone had sighted the first fires. It was thick, and it made their work all the more difficult.
Biralee wasn’t old enough to help, but he was old enough to be left home without too much concern.
And so, that morning Kirra set off and left Biralee to stir up his own trouble. Illarah met her on the way, cheerfully disgruntled about the haze and smell of another community’s burning harvest.
It wasn’t easy work even in good conditions, but when you added the heat and haze, they had to take breaks frequently for water and the soothing of over-worked hands.
Intuition told Kirra that the smoke would clear as the day ended and the night set in, so she worked herself hard in anticipation of that reward.
It never came.
The dark set in, but an orange glow remained.
She was half way home before she first heard it. A crackling that quickly became a roar in the distance. She picked up her pace, afraid of this unknown sound.
Kirra arrived home to find Biralee looking out in stunned silence. The path she and Illarah trekked every day was ablaze.
She grabbed him and ran.
At first, she ran near-aimlessly, concerned only with escaping the encroaching blaze.
After a time, Kirra remembered a story Brinda had told her about his own family once sheltering near the water of his home from a fire.
His home. The place she’d been born. That would be safe. It had to be!
So she changed direction, instinct guiding her as she carried a terrified Biralee.
Angry orange and red flames lapped at them along the way, with Kirra managing to keep ahead of them, fuelled by some previously unrealised reserve of stamina and single-mindedness.
Dust clogged her eyes, and the heat was becoming unbearable, but what was left of her sense of smell hinted that they were close. Close to the sea her father had grown up with that would be their salvation.
Mere seconds after first glimpsing the reflected catastrophe behind her in the waters surface for the first time, she heard a cracking. She knew that sound intimately, and in normal circumstances would watch with awe as the cracking morphed from sound to sight. Tonight, it was a fearful sound.
The last great tree before the ocean creaked one final time before splitting in two. Its branches crashed down around them, forcing Kirra to dodge wildly.
She avoided them all, but the shockwave of one massive branch caught her and sent them both flying in different directions. Biralee screamed as he flew through the haze.
She felt sand beneath her hands, and as she looked up from where she landed, she watched through smoke-sore eyes as the orange and red seemed to pick up her child’s limp body and whisk it away into the night.
She let herself feel it all then, finally. Her world spinning as the air left her lungs for the last time.
She’d failed. Her family, her history, the memories of her father, her son and all the hardships they’d endured. It died here with her.
The darkness that enveloped her seemed endless as her essence bobbed about in the void.
Kirra was comfortable here, wherever here was.
Her people didn’t believe in an afterlife, but she remembered the stories her father had told her of others who did. Of the dreaming they went to after they’d lived their lives.
So maybe that was where she was. Maybe the stories were true, and maybe she would find Biralee here, safe from the harm she’d been unable to prevent.
That thought stirred her mind, her drifting through the endless night suddenly a barrier to be overcome.
Her heat-baked eyes were slow to open, and the further she dragged herself up from the black, the more she began to realise the pain she was in. The world was foggy, and her sight extended only far enough to see that her hands had been wrapped in something she didn’t recognise.
The strange green warmth she found herself cradled by wasn’t like anything she’d experience before, though she thought it might have been trying to be. A facsimile of her home.
She looked up, saw what cradled her and went very still.
‘What are these creatures?’ she asked herself as her heart and mind raced.
The dreaming stories never mentioned anything like this. The spirits they told of were aloof, interested only in affairs of cosmic importance. Though they did occasionally teach or play tricks, they rarely physically helped those in the stories.
Kirra calmed as the spirit-like figure made soothing sounds towards her. She began to trust that it knew of her suffering. The steady rhythm of its heart, and the care it had shown for her burnt hands was proof enough, she thought.
Eventually, she felt safe enough to start opening her eyes to the this new spirit world. What she found confused her. There was no sky, and yet somehow multiple suns lit their world.
There were more spirits. All coated in the strange dark green of the being who cradled her.
Off in the distance, a series of strange white hutches. At first, she thought each contained an animal she was unfamiliar with. Their coats stranger colours than she’d ever seen, but they never stirred. Never gave any indication that they were alive.
‘What had the spirits done to them’ she thought to herself as she continued to explore this strange world.
One of the tall spirits would look over the hutches every now and then, seemingly interested in something Kirra could not quite see.
It was the slightest flicker of movement and an unmistakable squeak.
In the third hutch along, the cry of…
“Biralee!!!” She screamed. Willing with all her might that her child would wake and see her.
She struggled against the spirit that held her, reaching out in an attempt to cross the divide between them.
“Corporal, look. I think this one might be hers.”