south – the oven. story 7
Tom and the boy travelled in a companionable silence that was made all the more necessary by the effect of the road’s corrugations on the aging body of the Ute. It rattled and crashed its way along the long gravel road through the darkness of the thickly timbered forests, temporarily altering the plans of any nighttime predators within earshot.
Occasional a larger pothole or washout surprised the old man and it was in this fashion that the boy commenced to gather his own collection of oaths and swear words, many of which would become useful in his later years.
Fifteen kilometers from the coast Tom slowly pulled the car to a halt and sat looking intently into the rear vision mirror. Then he turned his head and peered out of the back window and into the black night of the road behind them.
He turned off the engine, switched off the headlights, unclipped his seatbelt, opened the door and got out. All the time looking back. Toby, the boy, knelt up on his seat and looked through the back window.
There was nothing to be seen. A half moon and light cloud cover made the dark stillness of the forest even deeper and a lonely wind rustled high in the canopy.
‘ There it is, ‘ whispered Tom, ‘ there it is! ‘ and a cold shiver passed right up and over the boy’s head as the old man started walking resolutely back down the road and away from the car.
In a second Toby was up out of the seat and by his grandfather’s side, his small hand seeking the old man’s.
Never doubting his grandfather this black night, not wanting to.
Then he too saw it.
Where one side of the road rose high and embanked, the trunks of two of the spotted gums growing up there were visible in the darkness, but not the others that grew around them. All else was utter darkness and these two trunks were just stood there, down the road, faintly lit. Redly lit they saw as they drew closer.
Finally the man and boy stood directly below the two trees and at the base of the embankment. The boy barefoot, took a step up.
‘ Better not go up there, ‘ said Tom, ‘ just hang on a second. ‘
‘ It’s warm granddad! ‘
‘ What is? ‘
‘ The ground, it’s warm.’
Tom stooped and placed his hand on the road, cold there. He walked over to where the boy stood and pushed his hand into the leaf pile at his feet. They rustled like paper at his touch and the warmth of the topmost of them was multiplied tenfold by those at the bottom.
And beneath them the ground was HOT.
With another word to Toby to stay put Tom swung his way up the embankment using the lower tree branches for support. He reached the top and slowly walked towards the spotted gums and the pulsating incandescence he could see issuing from a low mound between them.
An ancient termite mound with a headsized hole in its side, and as Tom came as close as the superheated air would allow him he looked into the cavity and saw that the interior of the mound was measures beyond an inferno.
He beheld a wavering vision of a room sized cavern in the ground with its floor and walls shimmering in the white light of unimaginable heat. On the floor were large white-hot blocks of matter that looked to swim in the thick plastic air. Occasionally a hot clear gust would pour out of the cavity and flow past Tom’s feet. His face ached from the heat and his mind held no grasp on the reason for what he saw. There was no sound and the cold night of the forest settled onto the back of his head. He watched intently as his eyes reflected back the orange and red of the conflagration that dried them in their sockets.
When Toby saw his grandfather disappear into the trees above him he walked back into the middle of the road and waited, his face turned up to the spotted gums.
‘ Come up and have a look. ‘
Tom’s face appeared above him at last, he was smiling and held out an arm out to help the boy scale the bank.
‘ But don’t walk too close, the ground could fall away underneath us. ‘
Toby looked into the hell of a catholics’ dreams and saw a path being burned to the centre of the earth. He saw blocks of white-hot coal being turned into diamonds, the whitened floor asparkle with countless pinpoints of red fire amongst the white ashes and the walls of clay being turned to sheets of molten glass.
Air so thick it could be thrown about. Heat so white and intense that if he walked in he would burn away smokeless in an instant and leave no ash. To become what, and then?
Some part of his mind that was already older than all the years allotted to him told the boy that this firepit in the night was a vision for him alone.
They talked about it on the way home that night and neither of them had an answer. When the little boy slept he dreamed of an ocean richly afire beneath its glassy surface and curtained at its horizon by burning drapes of deep purple flame. Behind these curtains the whole sky roared in an inferno as if the sun had drifted close and filled it with more flame.
His sleep became so restive that the big dog came into the house and stood sentinel by his bedside for the last three hours before dawn and when he awoke the dream was forgotten.